A key to understanding Joe Kennedy’s poetry is realizing that he is a man of God who no longer believes in God. More specifically, he is a man of the Roman Catholic God of the 1930’s and 1940’s, the God of detailed rites and rules embedded in a coherent and comforting metaphysics.
The young Joe Kennedy lost that faith, whether through a moment of secular revelation or a more gradual evolution of thought. He, though, is free of the anger common in former believers. He recalls an ordered universe with fondness, and mourns its loss. That fondness has been durable because his poetry and life still embrace many beliefs of his Catholic upbringing, such as: evil exists in our world, grace and mercy uplift life, and marriage is a sacrament based on mutual love and respect. He is also heavily influenced by the distinctly Irish branch of Catholicism, which insists upon the spiritual value of a great barroom joke or song.
This sense of exile from a happy and ordered past colored his first book, Nude Descending a Staircase, which won the Academy of American Poets’ first book prize in the years when it was won by Donald Hall, Donald Justice, Daniel Berrigan and Marilyn Hacker.
I’ll skip the first five stanzas of a poem from that book, “First Confession,” and ask you only to note in your materials the fourth line’s touch of bitterness. That line, though, is somewhat negated when the same priest later kindly dispenses penance “as one feeds birds.”
Please focus on the last stanza. Like the rest of the poem, it’s written in a tight Swiftian iambic tetrameter. The sounds are gorgeous:
When Sunday in seraphic light,
I knelt, as full of grace as most,
Kennedy bravely uses the striking “seraphic” over the more generic “angelic” to describe both the physical light and the metaphysical aura created by that light. The alliteration of “Sunday” and “seraphic” followed by the quieter s-sound in “grace” is lush, but it is easy to miss how, in the space of nine words, he accentuates his pauses three times by ending phrases with a precise “t” sound: light, knelt, most. In this memory of spiritual joy, the crisp closure caused by the “t” sounds bounds and expands the pauses, thus intensifying their spirituality.
This poem cannot let that transcendental memory stand, of course, so Kennedy punctures it with a blend of the juvenile, the profane, and the self-mocking:
And stuck my tongue out at the priest:
A fresh roost for the Holy Ghost.
For those of you who did not grow up Catholic, it used to be that when you received Communion, you knelt at the altar and stuck out your tongue so that the priest could place the wafer there. That act’s ambiguity has long amused Catholic children who played “Communion” with vanilla Necco wafers. For all of the last line’s wit, the poem retains gentle respect for the Church—the dove is one of the symbols of the Holy Ghost, so a “roost” is a logical location for a child who has just received the body of Christ.
This same combination of alienation and respect remains evident in Kennedy’s 1969 second collection, Growing into Love, particularly “Nothing in Heaven Functions as It Ought.” This sonnet, which I see as an improvement on the opening stanzas of Byron’s “The Vision of Judgment,” is brilliant in message and form—and in how its form reflects its message.
The dividing line of Earth is the blank space between the Heaven of the octet above and the Hell of the sestet below. Without the consolation of Catholicism, Kennedy’s Heaven (which bears some resemblance to his library) celebrates Man’s imperfections and free will.
Kennedy’s Hell deviates from traditional theologies. It includes no random tortures of a sadistic Satan, but it finds the Devil in the fascism of neatly-constructed rules and automation. One can’t help wondering whether his youthful work in science fiction influenced his prescient images of efficient technology as a threat to freedom.
“Nothing In Heaven” uses form to make literary jokes—jokes that reinforce serious messages. The octet starts with two regular iambic pentameter lines, with the only metrical irregularity being the trochaic substitution in the opening foot that flags somberness. As the gates of Heaven “lurch” open in line 3, the meter also lurches. Line 4 has two anapests that add a jaunty rhythm to a line rejecting Miltonic solemnity. Line 7 has twelve syllables and line 8 has thirteen; this master of craft defaced his own meticulous work so one can feel the unevenness of Heaven and its moments of anapestic joy.
In the sestet, Kennedy describes Hell with the striking adjective “sleek.” Googling persuades me that “sleek hell” in line 9 has no antecedent—though Joe must be proud to know it recently became the name of a song by a not-untalented rock band called “Plastic Peyote.” Except for some skillfully ominous trochaic substitutions, his meter is regular, and his words have exactly the sleekness of his Hell. Well-placed internal rhymes, such as none/anyone and hear/tear, smooth out the language and quicken its pace—in sharp contrast to the dense, sluggish line that closes the octet: “And the beatific choir keeps breaking up, coughing.”
Kennedy’s view of Heaven and Hell forces him to reassess issues that are the pulp of poetry. Unlike a believer, he cannot help friends and family of the dead to believe that a soul is experiencing eternal joy.
Facing mortality is bleaker in his Lucretian world, and Kennedy repeatedly wrestles with the problem of death, a fact that virtually all commentators neglect. In your materials are two elegies from Nude Descending a Staircase: “Little Elegy” and “At the Stoplight by the Pauper’s Graves.” Let me start by reading “Little Elegy.”
for a child who skipped rope
Here lies resting, out of breath
Out of turns, Elizabeth
Whose quicksilver toes not quite
Cleared the whirring edge of night.
Earth whose circles round us skim
Till they catch the lightest limb,
Shelter now Elizabeth
And for her sake trip up Death.
When I reread this poem, I had an “Aha!” moment, and sensed Martial 5.34, a powerful and surprisingly warm brief elegy for a girl named Erotion. In Peter Whigham’s translation, Martial’s poem ends: “Weigh lightly on her small bones, gentle earth,/as she, when living, lightly trod on you.”
I usually traffic in dead authors, so it was great fun to ask Joe about these lines. It turned out I was half-right. Joe wasn’t reading Martial, but he acknowledged he was reading Robert Herrick, which provoked me to check Herrick. The model for “Little Elegy” is clearly Herrick’s “Another Elegy upon a Child that Died,” which, in turn, is a condensed adaptation of Martial 5.34. Here is Herrick’s elegy:
Here a pretty baby lies
Sung asleep with lullabies:
Pray be silent and not stir
Th’easy earth that covers her.
Martial’s poem consists of ten lines of elegiac couplets;
Herrick condenses Martial to four lines of headless tetrameter. Herrick’s brevity, meter and focus on the life of the departed, all skillfully echoed by Kennedy, reflect the humanist-influenced poetry of English gravestones of his era.
All three poems are moving, but bleak. They address the Earth or earth, not a deity who offers eternal life. Kennedy builds upon Herrick’s setting and theme, but is more expansive. By so doing, the inherent inadequacy of his plea is clearer—there is no way an orbiting Earth can, in fact, “trip up death.”
As in “Nothing in Heaven Functions as It Ought,” a breakdown in meter reflects a message about a turn in thinking. Kennedy’s “Little Elegy” skillfully imitates Herrick’s headless tetrameter—until it breaks down in the last line as the poem fails to console. This final line has seven syllables like the others, but it starts with two stately iambs, and then concludes with this unexpected and awkward amphibrach: “trip up Death.” Roughness in rhythm again signals that a sleek and consoling conclusion just is not possible.
In the same book Kennedy addresses the same themes of “Little Elegy” in a more ambitious and ironic fashion. His haunting poem (pun intended), “At the Stoplight by the Paupers’ Graves,” captures the pathos of dead young people who never had a chance, but goes on to weigh the moral implications of our inability to cope with the sadness of their deaths, and so many deaths:
At the Stoplight by the Paupers’ Graves
Earth has been saved them but they won’t give in,
Won’t lie down quiet as they did before,
Though all is as it was: two scrawny kids
To a bed and the rat-wind scudding at the door.
Skull against skull, they won’t stretch out at ease
Their jammed arms, won’t set grass to root for good.
Perennials that came up only once
Struggle and dry down from their stones of wood.
My engine shudders as if about to stall,
But I’ve no heart to wait with them all night.
That would be long to tense here for a leap,
Thrall to the remote decisions of the light.
Here we see more clearly the darkness bounding the light. Kennedy stunningly captures ironies in the parallels between sad lives and sad afterlives. His language is harsh and striking: “the rat-wind scudding at the door” and “Skull against skull.” Moreover, he does not settle just for sharing this bleak vision, but makes us feel the weight of our indifference with the apt and unexpected metaphor of the shuddering engine at the stoplight beside the graves and the knockout jolt of the punning hypermetrical closing line: “Thrall to the remote decisions of the light.”
As if uneasy with the heaviness of these poems, some of Kennedy’s early work sometimes explores these themes with his more usual comic touch. In “Requiem in Hoboken,” the Holy Spirit of “Nothing in Heaven Functions as It Ought” ineffectually returns—this time irreverently referred to as “The Bird.”
Kennedy’s 1992 collection, Dark Horses, includes a longer and darker sequel to “Little Elegy.” It is a nightmare vision called “The Arm”:
A day like any natural summer day
Of hide-and-seek along the river shore
Till Snaker, probing with a snapped-off branch,
Dredged up a severed arm,
Let out a shout of glee
And shook it in my face like some grim charm.
In nightmares even now,
Dribbling dark bottom-ooze,
Those fingers green with algae, infantile,
Reach out to grapple me—
I spun and ran, abandoning my shoes,
Snaker and that little horror at my heels.
Was it a scrap of flesh
Or only rubber wrenched loose from some doll
Who died and bit the trash? I never knew,
But that it couldn’t fasten on at will
Made sense. And so I tried
Not fearing it, tried all night long, but still
Night after night that arm
Joined to a wrinkled baby with no nose
And cratered eyes would tap my windowpane,
Its cries squeezed shrill from trying to break through:
Why do you leave me out here in the rain?
It’s dark and cold. Let me come sleep with you.
This chilling bit of New England Gothic shows that, three decades after Nude Descending a Staircase, Kennedy was still wrestling with the justice of death in a godless world. In the same volume, however, he also included an elegy for the great poet J.V. Cunningham, unusual only in that it is written in heroic couplets as a form of tribute to Cunningham’s epigrammatic formalism.
In 2002’s The Lords of Misrule saw Kennedy remained in a more traditional elegiac mood in his “Jimmy Harlow,” but he also wrote comic elegies. In “Allan Ginsberg” Kennedy returns to the headless iambic tetrameter of “Little Elegy” and mourns a dead poet with the voice we most associate with X.J. Kennedy:
For Allen Ginsberg
Ginsberg, Ginsberg, burning bright,
Taunter of the ultra right,
What blink of the Buddha’s eye
Chose the day for you to die?
Queer pied piper, howling wild,
Mantra-minded flower child,
Queen of Maytime, misrule’s lord,
Bawling, Drop out! All Aboard!
Foe of fascist, bane of bomb,
Finger-cymbaled, chanting Om,
Proper poets’ thorn-in-side,
Turner of a whole time’s tide,
Who can fill your sloppy shoes?
What a catch for Death. We lose
Glee and sweetness, freaky light,
Ginsberg, Ginsberg, burning bright.
As sonically pleasing and entertaining as “For Allen Ginsberg” is, as with the Cunningham elegy it lacks the angst of earlier elegies.
Kennedy’s more recent elegies have become more like “For Allen Ginsberg” in that they celebrate an individual’s life without existential unease. He even mourns the loss of God himself in the hilarious “God’s Obsequies.”
In his most recent poems, his elegiac impulse is less directed at individuals and more at society—in other words, it becomes more political, albeit with a light hand. Nude Descending A Staircase was not overtly political, but one can’t help but note language that assumes the optimism that another Kennedy infused into the era. For instance, the satirical elegy “At the Ghostwriter’s Deathbed” included the phrase “many statesmen,” a phrase that would not trip easily off our tongues today.
The first warning of this rerouted impulse appeared in the 2002 book, Lords of Misrule. His “Meditation in the Bedroom of General Francisco Franco” used tongue-in-cheek humor to make a humorous point with a serious undercurrent—that St. Theresa of Avila should have throttled Franco when she had a chance, since Franco kept a relic of the saint—her “left hand”—at his bedside.
A more jarring reflection on civil society is more recent, the skillfully dedicated 2005 poem, “Fireflies.” Sparked by the beauty of Sewanee’s fireflies at dusk and a casual conversation with his devoted driver, it is a classic Kennedy humorous poem until the chilling turn of the final stanza:
Complacently, we watch them glow
Like kindly lantern lights that sift
Through palm fronds in Guantanamo
On the torture squad’s night shift.
Kennedy again roughens the meter in the final line—his painful conclusion doesn’t flow easily or metrically from the previous line. It is deliberately uncomfortable, both in content and sound, as it mourns lost innocence and optimism.
A talk that could be retitled “The Downer Poems of X.J. Kennedy” undermines reasonable expectations, like a sermon on selfish incidents in the life of Pope Francis or a wedding toast that suggests that divorce will be swift and acrimonious. Our joy in Kennedy’s humor makes us put an invisible fence around beloved poems, and keeps us from seeing the darkness near his light.
Scholars have failed not only to appreciate Kennedy’s elegiac impulses, but also his craft, depth of thought, and debts to the poetic tradition. As they evaluate his legacy, they should reread his books as if they were reading them for the first time, and come to appreciate those qualities.
This essay appeared in the Hopkins Review Vol. 8 No. 2 Spring 2015 (New Series).