The Poetry and Prose of X. J. Kennedy
Author: BERNARD E. MORRIS
Taking Measure argues that Kennedy's poetic achievement owes much to his use of such traditional features as rhyme and meter. Often deceptively simple, almost always ironic, Ken- nedy further exploits the ambiguities of language and the potential of sound and rhythm to design poetry rich in imagery and layered in meaning, shaping a fresh iconography out of familiar forms. Kennedy's characteristic irony is one of the more overt signs of his ability to see people and scenes from various perspectives simul- taneously. His interest in characters who have fallen on hard times, whether by their own doing or Heaven's, has produced a gallery of memo-rable portraits and myriad situations, many of which are alive with coarse humor, raucous goings-on, and rollicking music. In all is a deep faith in humanity. At the same time, Kennedy is capable of the most sensitive and serious reve- lations of the minds and experiences of people who are on the edge of their world, haunted souls who are spiritually damaged, isolated, wan- dering, or disillusioned and defeated.
Early in his career, Kennedy became increasingly interested in writing for children and young adults. Taking Measure in part explores the relation between Kennedy's light verse, his nonsense verse, and his adult poetry, showing that the features of Kennedy's literature for children are not very different from those in his adult poetry. Both his adult poetry and his children's verse issue from the same skillful use of language, image, and rhythmic line. The prin- cipal aim of his poetry for children is to captivate, surprise, and entertain a young audience. Kennedy's way with this kind of writing has been immensely successful primarily because he is exceptionally skilled in using rhythm and sound effects, together with wit and humor, to surprise his audience and make them laugh and call for more of the same fare. Kennedy's imagination is especially suited to the light and nonsense verse, for he can strip away appearances that adults become condi- tioned to seeing and describe people and their behavior freshly for children to enjoy. He has a knack for seeing adult behavior, thinking, and values from a child's perspective, and his sympathy for the child's feelings has enabled him to write prose fiction and verse that have entertained children and adults alike.
From his first collection of adult poetry, Nude Descending a Staircase, to his latest, The Lords of Misrule: Poems 1992-2001, Kennedy has displayed extraordinary insight into the modern condition, and his concern for the future of humanity has produced increasingly dark poems and caustic epigrams. The latter half of Taking Measure focuses on the theme and sub-jects of Kennedy's adult poetry with the aim of showing the breadth of his vision and the extent of his achievement in creating widely admired poems of incisive commentary on human na-ture and contemporary conditions. Ultimately, Kennedy's sympathy for humans softens his most acerbic poems; he is too human himself and too aware of being in the same predicament as everyone else not to fear spiritual dissolution and not to feel damned. Children inspire in him both hope and despair. It is no accident that his poetic vision finds expression in serious poetry and the nonsense of children's verse. Ken-nedy's strength, and his enduring contribution, is that he has not let the one silence the other.