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X. J. Kennedy's poems revel in humor, humanity

By Raymond Oliver / August 7, 1985



Cross Ties: Selected Poems, by X. J. Kennedy. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press. 168 pp. $16.95 ($9.95, paper). To say that X. J. Kennedy is the funniest poet alive is not to suggest, condescendingly, that he is only or merely funny. He might, like Chaucer, have incurred the disapproval of Matthew Arnold for his lack of ``high seriousness''; but he has something better than that -- low seriousness, which in Kennedy's case implies, along with a certain scurrility, depth rather than height of seriousness.

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The comedy ranges from broadly farcical situations to the subtlest of effects woven into the very texture of the verse, perceptible in a rhythm or slight nuance of meaning. Occasionally the wit is wet and fizzles, at least for this reader; and the four sections marked ``Intermissions,'' containing various kinds of light verse, children's rhymes, verbal wisecracks, etc., are not clearly differentiated from the chronologically dated sections, because Kennedy's comic muse is both prolific and invasive. But

in any case the book as a whole starts very well and finishes even better.

The secret of Kennedy's excellence is his mastery of traditional verse. Because the iambic line allows him to set each syllable into its place, and because he rhymes so expertly, his lines are easy to remember; after all, accentual-syllabic verse in rhyme was originally a mnemonic device, a fact remembered these days by songwriters rather than poets. And because Kennedy, being very talented, knows what to do with these technical devices, his lines are also memorable.

He is also master of a technique for which Jack Benny was famous, the significant pause, indicated in verse by syntactic rhythms: ``She sifts in sunlight down the stairs/ With nothing on. Nor on her mind'' (from ``Nude Descending a Staircase'').

And in a poem called ``Pottery Class,'' he brilliantly evokes that activity by his management of verbal sound effects as well as rhythms: ``Thwack! and a hunk of muck hung by the heels/ Has its back slapped, its breathing made to come.''

Equally striking is this poet's control over diction. He is so deft that, like Flannery O'Connor, he can merely flatly, factually state in such a way as to reveal the true grotesqueness of his subject; thus a poem about a cross-country trip by car itemizes the tourist stops, concluding, ``And snake farms where you stood and looked at snakes.''

X. J. Kennedy is a close observer of reality, who, in the spirit of Emily Dickinson, can use these details to embody perceptions of the subtlest, most elusive kind. His main literary antecedents are not, however, American but from the English Renaissance -- one notes the mark of Herrick, for instance, in the exquisite, poignant ``Little Elegy'' for a girl who skipped rope -- and from the French 19th century, especially Baudelaire and Rimbaud (Kennedy's very sharp ``First Confession,'' about a trip to the priest, is his answer to the ``confessional'' poetry done so messily by Lowell and others).

Kennedy is a man of faith, in the sense that he believes in values that cannot be reached by the methods of induction. And he is ``unreconciled/ To a darkness void of all kindness.'' For all his wit, he is never cruel; he has a remarkable sunniness, of which the many charming verses for chidren are evidence, but which also shows in a good-humored toleration for all kinds of things including the less exalted aspects of himself (there is a striking ``Ode'' to his own posterior).

For Kennedy the natural and therefore untidy is good, as in the marvelous ``Nothing in Heaven Functions As It Ought,'' and the rigidly artificial is bad. His variations on this familiar theme are fresh because personal and vivid. And comic, as ever; the poems are inhabited by characters with names like Ool and Bulsh who go around uttering curses and prophecies always to good effect because grounded in humorous concretes.

There are also several poems about poets and poetics, notably the stunning dramatic narrative ``Reading Trip,'' where he confronts a young Turk who demands that he forget about prosody and take up with ``Disposable stuff, word-Kleenex.'' There are also deeply moving poems about people, e.g., ``Schizophrenic Girl.'' But I want to conclude by drawing attention to a quiet but technically brilliant poem called ``Old Men Pitching Horsehoes''; like the best genre paintings suggested by the title, it pre sents us with the fullness of being. Very few poets can achieve such solidity of art.

Raymond Oliver has published several books of poetry. He teaches English at the University of California, Berkeley.

Poems from ``Cross Ties: Selected Poems'':

Back in a yard where ringers groove a ditch, These four in shirtsleeves congregate to pitch Dirt-burnished iron. With appraising eye, One sizes up a peg, hoists and lets fly -- A clang resounds as though a smith had struck Fire from a forge. His first blow, out of luck, Rattles in circles. Hitching up his face, He swings, and wait once more inhabits space, Tumbles as gently as a new-laid egg. Extended iron arms surround their peg Like one come home to greet a long-lost brother. Shouts from one outpost. Mutters from the other. Now changing sides, each withered pitcher moves As his considered dignity behooves Down the worn path of earth where August flies And sheaves of air in warm distortions rise, To stand ground, fling, kick dust with all the force Of shoes still hammered to a living horse.

One night Professor Kleit, mere dust and bone, rose to correct the death date on his stone, and added, with habitual precision, a finely chiseled footnote of derision.

My mother said, ``If just once more I hear you slam that old screen door, I'll tear out my hair! I'll dive in the stove!'' I gave it a bang and in she dove.