X.J. Kennedy is best known as a writer of light verse and poems for children -- forms neither identical nor mutually exclusive. My kids enjoy the jokes and wordplay, unaware they’re in the hands of a first-rate poetic technician gifted with a dirty mind. Kennedy favors the classical forms, like the limerick -- this one titled “A Faulkner Hero” (from Peeping Tom’s Cabin: Comic Verse 1928-2008):
“Hardly famous for moral perfection,
Popeye couldn’t erect an erection,
So instead of his knob
He’d use corn on the cob
As a means to express his affection.”
And one-liners, like “On the Decline of Psychoanalysis”:
“The Krafft is ebbing.”
And rhyming couplets, as in “Normalcy,” which starts as one thing and turns into quite another:
“Right-thinking eaters, you and I,
Sink fork first in a piece of pie
At its front point, unlike one queer
I know who entered from the rear
And, what was worse, the pie was mince.
He has been put away long since.”
These are trifles, amusing and forgettable like the jokes my barber in New York used to tell, but I think we can agree that Kennedy gives readers more pleasure and laughter than Charles Olson and Leroi Jones combined. Even in Kennedy’s more serious verse we find hints of the class clown. The only poetic tribute to J.V. Cunningham I’ve ever read is Kennedy’s “Terse Elegy for J.V. Cunningham,” first published in The New Criterion in October 1985, barely six months after Cunningham’s death:
“Now Cunningham, who rhymed by fits and starts,
So loath to gush, most sensitive of hearts --
Else why so hard-forged a protective crust? --
Is brought down to the unreasoning dust.
Though with a slash a Pomp’s gut he could slit,
On his own flesh he worked his weaponed wit
And penned with patient skill and lore immense,
Prodigious mind, keen ear, rare common sense,
Only those words he could crush down no more
Like matter pressured to a dwarf star’s core.
May one day eyes unborn wake to esteem
His steady, baleful, solitary gleam.
Poets may come whose work more quickly strikes
Love, and yet -- ah, who’ll live to see his likes?”
It’s not “Lycidas” but I’m touched by Kennedy’s commemoration of a poet more extravagantly gifted than himself – in fact, one of the great American poets of the last century. Kennedy gets the details right, though the sonnet’s final couplet is a letdown. I like “loath to gush,” “weaponed wit,” “rare common sense” and his tribute to Cunningham’s concision: “Like matter pressured to a dwarf star’s core.” It’s a fine elegy written not quite slavishly in the Cunningham manner. Here is Cunningham’s “Elegy for a Cricket, written when he was 22:
“Fifteen nights I have lain awake and called you
But you walk ever on and give no answer:
Therefore, damned by my sole, go down to the hellfire.
Spirit luminous and footstep uncertain,
You will pace off forever the halls of great Dis.
You there, caught in the whirling throng of lovers,
If you find in that fire her whom I loved once.
Say to her that I gave you few but true words.
Say to her that your dream as her dream held me,
Alone, waking, until your friend, the cock, slept.
Say to her, if she ask what shoe you wear now,
That I gave you my last, I have none other.”
The poem carries an epigraph from Catullus (3.13-14):
“at vobis male sit, malae tenebrae
Orci, quae omnia bella devoratis!”
Timothy Steele, editor of The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, gives this translation:
“But a curse on you, evil shadows
Of Orcus, which devour all this is beautiful.”
Kennedy, Cunningham, Catullus: “few but true words.”