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."
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.
She supported his decision, saying, "Maybe you'll get more writing done for yourself." The couple lived off their credit cards for two years.
Eventually, though, Kennedy's writing provided the family with a steady income. To date he has penned 16 children's books, coedited three, and written seven books of poems for adults. He also edited poetry for The Paris Review and started, with Dorothy, a little magazine of poetry called Counter/Measures.
"I like poems where you don't really know whether to laugh or cry when you read them," he says. "I like what Auden said once, that poetry is the clear expression of mixed feelings."
At the Concord Library, listeners did sense the complex emotions in his poetry.
"Kennedy knows how to use traditional poetic forms to give us both joyful and truthful observations about the human condition," says Glenn Mitchell, coordinator of the Friends of the Concord Library's poetry reading series. "His sketches of people and experiences combine playful irreverence with language full of sound and rhythm, and refreshing bites of irony."
Such comments might gratify the teacher who viewed himself as "a tour guide through the murky forest of poetry. Most college students have read [poetry] rather sporadically, spottily, and I was out to show them where the good stuff is. I'm the guy with the pointer and flashlight saying, 'Hey, look at this.' My goal was to make people see that poems can give us joy."
That's one reason Kennedy adds a dash of humor to his textbooks - "humor leavens life" - yet he encourages even young readers to understand how poems are constructed.
"The attitude that poetry should not be analyzed is prevalent among many who consider themselves experts on children's literature. But I suspected that kids like to look closely at things and figure out what makes them go. Without talking a poem to death, why couldn't you look closely and see what some of its elements are, what's going on in the language? Do you have metaphors, colorful figures of speech, musical sound effects?"
This approach has become popular in recent years. (The current US poet laureate, Ted Kooser, has both a book and a weekly newspaper column in which he encourages adults to do close reading.)
But Kennedy doesn't worry about being trendy. Nor does he agree with some of the ideas poets have about themselves.
"I get uneasy with people who say poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," he says. "If poets were the legislators of the world, the world would be even worse off. What poet can you think of that you'd like to vote for for president?"
Instead, he focuses on doing his work well, which at readings includes signing copies of his books, both the newer ones and dog-eared copies of "An Introduction to Poetry."
He also answers listeners' questions about everything from his choice of tie - green and white stripes in Concord - to his lively reading style. "A poetry reading, whether anybody likes it or not, is inevitably a theatrical experience," he says. "Why not face that fact and be the least boring performer you are able to?"
• Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.
How odd that verse that's song
Should so displease the young.
They are so serious.
They hate all artifice
As standing in the way
Of mind's insistent say.
But to my mind what counts
Is language that surmounts
The message it must bear,
Steps back without a care
And, stone blind, yields the day
To bloodstream's reckless play.
X.J. Kennedy, from "The Lords of Misrule"