A poet who celebrates the joy of verse
X.J. Kennedy has cast a long shadow as poet, editor, teacher - and loving advocate of verse.
When X.J. Kennedy flies somewhere, he doesn't tell seatmates that he is a poet. If he's interested in chatting, he'll say that he writes books for children. If not, "I write textbooks" is his conversation killer. "I don't think anybody is a poet 24/7," he says, "only in those rare moments when a person is producing a poem."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
That perspective might seem odd, given that Mr. Kennedy has won a Lamont Award from the Academy of American Poets, a Guggenheim, and a Los Angeles Book Award, among other prestigious prizes. Yet even during National Poetry Month - when many poets actively promote the genre - Kennedy plays down the fact that he has had a profound effect on generations of readers.
His "An Introduction to Poetry," now in its 11th edition, is the bestselling college poetry textbook. His two anthologies for children have also been bestsellers.
And his poems, distinctive for their use of wit and rhyme, helped fuel a renewed interest in both formal and humorous work.
"He was the Billy Collins before there was a Billy Collins," says bg Thurston, a creative writing teacher at Lasell College in Newton, Mass. "He is a poet that the general audience easily connects with, but his ego doesn't seem to get in the way. He actively cares about promoting younger or unknown poets."
Such was the case at the Concord Free Public Library (Mass.) recently, where Kennedy opened with two children's poems by the late James Hayford, a little-known Vermont writer whose work was admired by Robert Frost.
Kennedy and his wife, Dorothy, sifted through 774 of Hayford's poems to find the 38 that appear in the book "Knee-Deep in Blazing Snow," which was published at the end of last year.
"Goats in Pasture," he began, with the aplomb of a stage actor.
"Their bony heads untaxed by need of moving,
Changing, repairing, laying by,
Goats keep a comprehensive eye
On the condition of the sky...."
The audience, many of whom had gray hair, chuckled. Then, moments later, they gave a collective sigh when Kennedy read,
"Time to plant trees is when you're young,
So you will have them to walk among -
So, aging, you can walk in shade
That you and time together made."
The rhyme and meter of Hayford's work clearly pleased the crowd, as it did Kennedy, who says that the ghost of meter can been seen in everything he writes. "To me, a poem that's in rhyme and meter is the difference between watching a film in full color and watching a film in black and white," he says. "Not that a few black and white films aren't wonderful. So are certain successful pieces of free verse."
His college students didn't always agree with that assessment, especially when they used rhyme for the first time. Kennedy, who has taught at Wellesley College, Leeds University in England, and the universities of Michigan, North Carolina (Greensboro), and California (Irvine) often heard the same response:" 'Oh I hate this. It won't let me say what I want to say.' But I'd tell them that is a tremendous advantage. 'Now you will discover something you didn't want to say, and that's where it gets really deep and fascinating.' "
Kennedy began his own process of discovery when, as a full professor at Tufts University in Boston, he decided to write "An Introduction to Poetry" as a "summer project."
Instead, the book took three years to complete. (Dana Gioia joined as coauthor with the eighth edition.)
He wrote more textbooks after that, and in 1977, he made some big decisions. Days before the start of the fall semester, Kennedy, a father of five, told his wife he didn't want to continue teaching.