FALL 2009



Walt Whitman 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 quit."

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.




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