is considered the American progenitor of the wide, expansive
'free verse' style of poetry that puts aside rhyme and rhythm
in favor of a more muscular, natural form of verse. So one
would think that when a national poet is chosen to serve as
the poet in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace in West
Hills, they'd choose a free verse style writer.
Not in 2009.
In choosing X J Kennedy as writer in residence at the WWBA,
the association chose one of the key figures in the world
of formal verse since he first began publishing in the late
1950s, and a man for whom advocacy of poems that use rhyme
and meter has been a fundamental mantra.
Not that Kennedy sees any conflict in that. "In American
poetry there are many mansions," said Kennedy earlier
this year, as he prepared to take on his duties as Master
Poet and Poet In Residence at the WWBA. "I have admiration
for someone who can write good free verse."
Things have not always been so cordial.
Truman Capote is said to have declared Beat author Jack Kerouac's
spontaneous prosody 'typing,' not writing. Whitman declared
called rhyming poetry useless ‘except in perciflage
(frivolous banter) and the comic.’
And Kennedy, who readily admits he came on the national poetry
scene in 1961 with a book that was "one of the last formal
books -- I was a late guest at a party that was over,"
he has said, called the writing of Kerouac colleague Allen
Ginsberg "like instant mashed potatoes... and served
in a comparable shape. Poems ought to be harder to write than
this." In fact, Kennedy's been quoted as having thought
of Whitman as a 'wild blatherer' until he was exposed at Columbia
to the subtleties of rhyme and meter in Whitman's work.
These days, as formal verse has gone from being considered
old fashioned and stodgy to 'the new thing,' Kennedy can afford
to be more generous in his appraisal. He readily admits that
once he learned more about the Beat poets' methods as opposed
to their assertion of spontaneity, he came to admire Ginsberg's
efforts to craft fine poetry. "The Beats liked to give
out that this was spontaneous, but they demonstrated that
you can craft free verse."
As for Whitman? Says Kennedy, he "reworked Leaves of
Grass his whole life, striving to make it better. Anyone who
studies the craft of free verse has to go back to Whitman
and study him."
It's been a long road for Kennedy to get to the point of
being able to say that. Raised in Dover, New Jersey to a payroll
time keeper at a factory, he devoted himself assiduously to
the writing of formal verse at Seton Hall, Columbia; and then
after the Korean War, at the Sorbonne and at a doctorate program
recommended to him at Michigan by legendary American poet
Cid Corman. "I met Cid in Paris -- he had a little poetry
workshop that met in the English Bookshop, I fell into that,"
says Kennedy. "He had been to the University of Michigan,
they had a writing center for students, and he recommended
it to me. So I said all right."
Six years later, and still struggling to get the University
to accept his dissertation proposal, Kennedy was already drawing
the attention of major publishers of American poetry. When
his first book "Nude Descending A Staircase" came
out to wide critical acclaim in 1961, he left Michigan to
teach. "Lots of poets were teaching back then without
a PhD - Ciardi, Randall Jerrell," he says. "So I
After a short stint at a women's college in Greensboro NC,
he settled at Tufts, where he engaged in a multi decade teaching
career that has included significant publication credits and
a continuing presence as an advocate for the use of formal
structures in American poetry. More recently, he has cut back
on his teaching and criticism, but is still actively involved
in writing formal verse, much of it a mixture of comic wit
and serious moral intent.
"Comic verse is much better in rhyme and meter,"
said Kennedy. "It adds to that pleasure. I still remember
Lord Byron rhyming 'ineffectual' with 'hen pecked-ual'."
In his “sort of an introduction” to Peeping Tom's
Cabin, a recent volume of his poetry, Kennedy offers ideas
on the nature and value of comic verse: “Like hens that
gulp iron nails, some poems have plenty of weight rattling
around in them; yet, light on their feet, they…turn
a backflip, and make us laugh.” True to that view, Kennedy's
poems are peppered with mind-boggling rhymes -- in one poem
he manages to rhyme 'pasta' with 'faster.'
But he is also capable of demonstrating just how much the
quiet grace of formal versifying is a thing of lasting beauty
in his poetry -- as in the title poem to the book that made
him a household name among poets in 1961:
Nude Descending a Staircase
Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,
A gold of lemon, root and rind,
She sifts in sunlight down the stairs
With nothing on. Not on her mind.
We spy beneath the banister
A constant thresh of thigh on thigh--
Her lips imprint the swinging air
That parts to her parts go by.
One-woman waterfall, she wears
Her slow descent like a long cape
And pausing, on the final stair
Collects her motions into shape.
It is this ability to stand at the intersection of genial
wit and profound understanding that argues most successfully
for the enduring impact of XJ Kennedy and his poetics on the
recent American writing landscape.