Posts Tagged ‘X.J. Kennedy’

Lonesome George’s lesson: light verse is not always a laughing matter.

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017
Share
George

A lonely life on the Galapagos for George (Photo: Mike Weston)

Two friends have the spotlight today: Patrick Kurp, one of our favorite bloggers over at the incomparable Anecdotal Evidence, writes about the poet X.J. Kennedy, who turns 88 this year in the today’s Los Angeles Review of Books. The review, “‘A Sweetness in This Sense’: On X. J. Kennedy’s That Swing: Poems, 2008–2016,” spotlights the latest collection of his poems. Well, we’ve written Joe Kennedy’s thoughts about aging here, on the occasion of one of his previous birthdays. And we’ll most likely have more to say about him after the West Chester Poetry Conference next month, where he will be a guest of honor. 

Here’s what Patrick has to say about Joe, aging, and the light verse for which the poet is renowned:

thatswing“Kennedy’s standing as a poet recalls the late Thomas Berger’s as a novelist. Berger, the author of some of the funniest novels in the language, always denied being a comic writer, because, in our culture, humor is regarded as suspiciously frivolous. But consider the serious humor of Kennedy’s “Lonesome George,” devoted to a giant tortoise, the last of its species, kept in a pen at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos Islands:

No mate for him exists.
.  Last one of his subspecies,
he solemnly persists
.  in turning into feces
eelgrass brown and dry,
.  spine-sprinkled cactus leaves.
Straining to gulp a fly,
.  dejectedly retrieves
blunt head. Dead-ending male,
.  lone emblem of despair,
he slumps on his kneecaps, his tail
.  antennaing the air.
For a long moment we bind
.  sympathetic looks,
we holdouts of our kind,
.  like rhymed lines, printed books.

XJKennedy

Da man.

“Lonesome George, like his author, persists in doing what he does best, and without self-pity. Humor has many timbres and tones, and Kennedy plays with most of them, from the scatological to rarefied wit. Has anyone before him rhymed “subspecies” and “feces”? Kennedy’s gift for concision is a marvel (the meeting of poet and tortoise could easily be a fleshed-out essay or story, and much would be lost), as is the way he bends and shapes his basic iambic trimeter line. In a note to the poem, Kennedy, who visited George in 2011, delivers the punch line: “In June 2012, a few days after this poem appeared in a magazine, George died, leaving no progeny.” Light verse isn’t always a laughing matter.”

Read the whole thing here.

Poet William Jay Smith, 1918-2015: “the truest and purest poems an American has written”

Thursday, August 20th, 2015
Share
williamsmith

A most gentle warrior.

A few days ago, I wrote about poems as memorable speech, and the kind of poem that lodges in your brain and won’t leave. William Jay Smith wrote a dark and magical one, and it’s carved in my memory. It’s his enduring gift to me now.

Smith died on Tuesday, August 18, at the age of 97. From the New York Times obituary yesterday:

Mr. Smith’s poems for adults were praised for diction that was at once unfussy and lyrical; for thematic variety (they ranged over the natural world, erotic love, the experience of war, his Choctaw ancestry and many other subjects); for their ability to see minutely into everyday experience; and for a deceptive simplicity that belied the rigorous formal architecture beneath.

He embraced poetic devices, like rhyme and carefully calibrated meter, that many 20th-century colleagues considered passé — a self-imposed set of strictures that, critics said, gave his best work the sheen of something meticulously constructed, buffed and polished.

I met him at a West Chester Poetry Conference a dozen or so years ago. Too briefly to make much of an impression, except that he was courteous, gentle, and humble. He didn’t make much of his Native American ancestry, though it was patterned on his face. As I recall, he read from his poems on the Trail of Tears during the conference, and I bought one of his books as a result. Luckily, I was able to find it on my shelf this morning. As I thumbed through, I found this one, “The Eagle Warrior: An Invocation” from his 1997 collection The Cherokee Lottery, about a life-size ceramic man costumed as an eagle, thrown into a lake by the conquistadors and for that reason, and only that reason, it survived. This is how the invocation concludes:

O Eagle-warrior, surrogate of the sun,
.     fly off in my mind now
to circle the sun, that “ascending eagle,”
and with your penetrating eye
and your calligraphic wing-span
.     printed high upon the air,
follow the westward movement
.     of every vanquished tribe.
O Eagle-warrior, quick-eyed, fierce-beaked,
.     tense-taloned,
be their emblem, be their witness, be their scribe.

smithbookRichard Wilbur called him “a most gifted and original poet … One of the very few who cannot be confused with anybody else.” Dana Gioia wrote that his best poems “are unlike anything else in contemporary American literature … Although often based on realistic situations, Smith’s compressed, formal lyrics develop language musically in a way which summons an intricate, dreamlike set of images and associations.” And X.J. Kennedy said that he “has given us many of the truest and purest poems an American has written: the most resonantly musical, the most magical.” 

Smith authored over fifty books of poetry, children’s verse, literary criticism, and translation. Noted for his prodigious career, which spanned the fields of creative writing, translation, academia, and politics, Smith served a two-year term in the Vermont House of Representative, from 1960 to 1962, and also served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (the position now known as the U.S. poet laureate) from 1968 to 1970. Smith was also a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters since 1975, as well as a former vice president for literature.

As noted over at poets.org, Smith’s honors include the Henry Bellamann Major Award, the Russell Loines Award from the National Institute of the Arts and Letters, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2002, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Louisiana Center for the Book. He also received honors from the French Academy, the Swedish Academy, and the government of Hungary for his translations.

Ah yes, the poem that lodged in my brain:

vanity

Poet X.J. Kennedy wins $50K award – and he deserves it!

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015
Share
XJKennedy

The reason this man looks happy.

One of the greatly beloved figures on the American poetry scene is X.J. Kennedy, known to his friends as “Joe” – though he’s too little known. (We’ve written about the 85-year-old poet here and here.)

Let’s work on the “little known” part. That may change a little bit with today’s announcement that Poets & Writers has just made him the winner of the ninth annual Jackson Poetry Prize. The $50,000 prize is awarded each year to an American poet of exceptional talent “who deserves wider recognition,” according to the Poets & Writers website. (See? The P&W folks also think he’s too little known.) “The award is among the most substantial given to an American poet, and is designed to provide what all poets need: time and encouragement to write.”

Kennedy was selected by a panel of three judges: the poets Heather McHugh, Vijay Seshadri, and Rosanna Warren. Here’s the citation that went with the award:

“X. J. Kennedy’s forms are perennial, his rhetoric is at once elaborate and immediate, and his language and diction are always of the American moment. He translates the human predicament into poetry perfectly balancing wit, savagery, and compassion. His subtly dissonant rhymes and side-stepping meters carry us through the realms of puzzlement and sorrow to an intimated grace. The size of his poems is small but their scope is vast.”

Previous recipients of the Jackson Poetry Prize are Claudia Rankine (2014), Arthur Sze (2013), Henri Cole (2012), James Richardson (2011), Harryette Mullen (2010), Linda Gregg (2009), Tony Hoagland (2008), and Elizabeth Alexander (2007).

kennedy_rgbKennedy’s many books of poetry include Nude Descending a Staircase (1961), his first collection, which won a Lamont Award, Cross Ties, and The Lords of Misrule. In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New & Selected Poems (2007) was an American Library Association “Notable Book.” His most recent titles include Fits of Concision: Collected Poems of Six or Fewer Lines (2014) and a comic novel, A Hoarse Half-human Cheer (2015). He is the author of 24 children’s books.

In 2009, he received the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost medal. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Poetry, and others, as well as in 287 anthologies. He is also a former poetry editor for Paris Review. His awards include a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Bess Hokin Prize for Poetry magazine, and a Los Angeles Times book prize. Kennedy has taught at the Universities of Michigan, North Carolina (Greensboro), and California (Irvine), as well as Wellesley, Tufts, and Leeds. On a more personal note, P&W writes: “He and Dorothy M. Kennedy have collaborated on two children’s books and five children. They sometimes host six grandchildren in Lexington, Mass.”

I always assumed the “X” stood for Xavier. What else could it be? Not so, according to P&W: the New Jersey-born poet was “irked by the hardship of having the name of Joseph Kennedy, he stuck the X on and has been stuck with it ever since.” He studied at my own alma mater, the University of Michigan, and also at Columbia.

Dana Gioia, who coauthored the textbook An Introduction to Poetry, said the award is “long overdue” – that was on someone’s Facebook page. I can’t find where he actually said that, but it sounds about right. The kudos are rolling around the social media – as an educator, editor, and mentor, he has been a champion of many (and one of mine, too – thank you, Joe!)

Poets & Writers will host a reading and reception in honor of Kennedy in May in New York City. Wish I could attend! Many of us will be there in spirit. Read his “The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once” – one of my all-time favorites – over here.

Philip Larkin on WWI: “Never such innocence again.”

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014
Share
philip-larkin-1943-006

Larkin at Oxford in 1943, before “the failures and remorse of age.”

W.H. Auden‘s “September 1, 1939” was a World War II poem, without a single gun in it, and then had a powerful revival on 9/11. The New York Times recounted its newfound fame:

”Auden’s words are everywhere,” wrote the author of a ”Letter From New York” in The Times Literary Supplement of London. At least a half-dozen major newspapers reprinted ”September 1, 1939” in its entirety. It was read on National Public Radio. It was introduced into hundreds of chat rooms on the Internet. In the Chicago area, the Great Books Foundation and The Chicago Tribune sponsored discussions of it. Students at Stuyvesant High School, four blocks from ground zero in Manhattan, produced a special issue of their school newspaper (which The New York Times distributed to its readers in the metropolitan area) prominently featuring one of the poem’s most familiar lines, ”We must love one another or die.”

Surely, however, it shared the somber honors with Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which appeared on the back cover of the New Yorker after 9/11.

zagajewski

Praising the mutilated world…

Could the poem for World War I be Philip Larkin‘s MCMXIV? It’s getting a lot of play this month, during the centenary of the beginning of the Great War.  The poem was first published in 1964, fifty years after the events it describes, in the collection Whitsun Weddings. 

A few words from critics about Larkin that I found along the way: Andrew Sullivan feels that Larkin “has spoken to the English in a language they can readily understand of the profound self-doubt that this century has given them.” X.J. Kennedy wrote that Larkin’s oeuvre is  “a poetry from which even people who distrust poetry, most people, can take comfort and delight.” J. D. McClatchy said that Larkin wrote “in clipped, lucid stanzas, about the failures and remorse of age, about stunted lives and spoiled desires.”

XCMXIV is only one remarkable sentence long  (mind the punctuation), and describes the enlistment of naïve young men at the war’s outset. Read it, and hear it, in the video below.

 

Congratulations, once again, to Dana Gioia!

Saturday, January 25th, 2014
Share
gioia

Dana at Stanford in 2007 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Once again, Dana Gioia has a new honor: This time, the Sewanee Review has just announced that he will receive this year’s Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry.

Previous winners have included Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, W.S. Merwin, Anne Stevenson, Donald Hall, X.J. Kennedy, and others.

Dana, known for his poetry, criticism, and arts advocacy, holds the newly created Judge Widney Chair in Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.  He’s also a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and has received a number of honors in recent years, including the Laetare Medal. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here and, oh, perhaps a zillion other places.

His most recent collection is Pity the Beautiful – we’ve written about it here, and I’ve published excerpts from the volume, also here.  Writing in Best American Poetry, David Lehman stated unequivocally:  “I have no hesitation in declaring it to be his finest to date . . . These poems in which sentiment is refined by technical prowess, and simple words combine to make music and meaning merge marvelously and memorably.”

Pity-The-BeautifulI love all the Gioias – including those I have never met (his parents, for example) – so perhaps my favorite passage from the announcement is this one:

Gioia’s poetic philosophy—particularly his belief that poetry should “touch on those things that are central to people’s lives”—can be traced back to his childhood in Los Angeles, where his Sicilian father and Mexican mother raised him. He remembers that his mother, who, he says, received no education beyond high school, recited poems to him by heart and read others from a “crumpled old book that had belonged to her mother.” Because of this, Gioia says, “I have never considered poetry an intrinsically difficult art whose mysteries can be appreciated only by a trained intellectual.”

The awards ceremony will take place February 19 at the University of the South in Sewanee.  David Mason will give a lecture on Dana’s work on the 18th.

Seth Abramson dons “Kick me!” sign; makes list of top 200 advocates for poetry.

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013
Share
Jane-Hirshfield

Jane made the cut.

Seth Abramson is an intrepid man in a country that publishes 20,000 books of poetry each decade, among 75,000 poets (who counts them, and how?) Here’s why: he has issued a list of “The Top 200 Advocates for Poetry (2013)” in the Huffington Post – it’s here, as well as on dartboards across the U.S.  We all love lists, of course, and everyone has an opinion on how they should be done – this one, particularly.  Two hundred is long enough to give the impression that everyone ought to be included, but short enough that not everyone can be. So Abramson’s gesture is akin to wearing a “Kick me!” sign on your back. He begins by almost apologizing: “The poets favored by one reader will invariably not be the poets favored by another; in fact, it’s getting harder and harder to find two readers whose reading interests or even reading lists exhibit much overlap at all. Too many such lists, such as the widely- and justly-panned one recently published by Flavorwire, exhibit obvious age, race, ethnicity, and (particularly) geographic biases.”  We would like to fault him, first of all, for hyphening an adverb that ends in “ly,” which is never done – moreover, it’s dangerous to begin a list by dissing someone else’s. In that way, you’ve made your first enemy already.

Wilbur2

Lifetime achievement, for sure.

He continues for some paragraphs in the same vein: “As a contemporary poetry reviewer who publishes his review-essays in The Huffington Post, I have no special access to knowledge of who is or isn’t doing the most to be an advocate for American poetry (a term I define very broadly) on a national or global scale. While I’m lucky to have access to many more published poetry collections than most poets or poetry readers do, as like any reviewer I regularly receive poetry collections in the mail from U.S. and international publishers, because the list below isn’t intended to detail who’s presently writing the best poetry, but is rather simply a list of who’s doing the best to advocate for American poetry by any and all means (including by writing it, but by no means limited to the authorial function), I’m not in a much better position than others are to generate a list of the most influential poetry advocates in America and beyond.”

Well, sure, I guess.  That said, we were pleased to see a number of friends and colleagues on the list – Kay Ryan, Jane Hirshfield,  W.S. Merwin, Don Share, Ron Silliman, Helen Vendler, Heather McHugh, Allison Joseph, Eavan Boland, Mark McGurl – and nonagenarian Richard Wilbur, a lifetime achievement award, for sure.

hirsch

Where’s Ed?

Abramson qualifies that “the list below is neither exhaustive nor authoritative nor superlative. I have no doubt that I’ve missed a number of important names, due either to forgetfulness or an unconscious bias or simply (and most likely) sheer ignorance of who’s doing what across the vast landscape of American literature. … Those poets and allies of poetry offering contributions to American poetry commensurate with the contributions of the individuals listed below should therefore consider themselves honorary members of the ‘Top 200 Advocates for American Poetry” list as well.’

RSGWYNNThen he issued this invitation: “I strongly encourage readers of this list to contribute their own names to the comment section below the article.”  Needless to say, there were a number of people ready to take him up on the offer, including other friends’ names.  What?  No Edward Hirsch?  What?  No Robert Hass?  And no mention of Dana Gioia, whose work at the NEA was tireless?

Naturally, Humble Moi didn’t make the list – but to my surprise, I did make it in the first few comments in the section afterward, for which I’m grateful to R.S. Gwynn, another friend, who did make the list:

“I’m happy to be listed here (even though I’d like to be known as ‘poet and critic’) but I miss the presence of such names as Alfred Corn, the late Tom Disch, Dana Gioia, Cynthia Haven, X. J. Kennedy, and David Mason, all of whom are (or were in Tom’s case) great advocates.

As a small plug, I’d like to mention that I edited a book of the works of modernist poet-critics some years ago. Its title?  The Advocates of Poetry.

Just for that, here’s a picture of Sam Gwynn’s book, which discusses John Crowe Ransom, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, John Ciardi, and Robert Penn Warren – great advocates of poetry all.

 

“The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once”

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012
Share

Happy birthday, Joe!

X.J. Kennedy – a.k.a. Joe Kennedy – turns 83 today.  I fished out a 1999 email from him so that I could send off a quick birthday greeting before the day expired on the East Coast.  And I received a quick email reply within an hour or so.  Good to know he’s online and quick on the draw.

Birthdays are, of course, a reminder of time.  What better and more fitting way to celebrate than with one of my favorite poems by him:

And yes, Joe, it’s true.  “Huh?  What happened?”  I’m at that point now.

 

The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once

Suppose your life a folded telescope
Durationless, collapsed in just a flash
As from your mother’s womb you, bawling, drop
Into a nursing home. Suppose you crash
Your car, your marriage – toddler laying waste
A field of daisies, schoolkid, zit-faced teen
With lover zipping up your pants in haste
Hearing your parents’ tread downstairs – all one.

Einstein was right. That would be too intense.
You need a chance to preen, to give a dull
Recital before an indifferent audience
Equally slow in jeering you and clapping.
Time takes its time unraveling. But, still,
You’ll wonder when your life ends: Huh? What happened?