Thursday, August 21, 2014

`His Steady, Baleful, Solitary Gleam'

The old authors did it better, writing about the grimmest of subjects, the death of children, without mush or emotional posturing. There’s a calm deliberation about Jonson remembering his "best piece of poetry" and Herrick his “pretty bud.” Among contemporaries, Peter De Vries managed the impossible in The Blood of the Lamb. For a poet elided from fashionable literary consideration, exiled as a “light versifier,” the subject of the second poem in X.J. Kennedy’s first collection, Nude Descending a Staircase (1961), seems unpromisingly mirthless: “On a Child Who Lived One Minute”: 

“Into a world where children shriek like suns
Sundered from other suns on their arrival,
She stared, and saw the waiting shape of evil,
But couldn't take its meaning in at once,
So fresh her understanding, and so fragile. 

“Her first breath drew a fragrance from the air
And put it back. However hard her agile
Heart danced, however full the surgeon’s satchel
Of healing stuff, a blackness tiptoed in her
And snuffed the only candle of her castle. 

“Oh, let us do away with elegiac
Drivel! Who can restore a thing so brittle,
So new in any jingle? Still I marvel
That, making light of mountainloads of logic,
So much could stay a moment in so little." 

It’s voguish to say poems are about the making of poems, but the good ones normally engage something out there in the big bad world beyond the classroom. They have substance. Kennedy, I would suggest, is writing about a dead newborn, the poem we are reading and the promise of poetry itself in proper hands, and does so without compromising them. How refreshing his injunction to “do away with elegiac / Drivel!” “Jingle” is suitably patronizing and the final line is perfect. In a similar multum in parvo spirit, Yvor Winters wrote “Much in Little.” 

I muster these responses to Kennedy’s poem to remind us of what Auden wrote in 1937 in “Letter to Lord Byron”: “Light verse, poor girl, is under a sad weather. / She’s treated as démodé altogether.” Light verse is left to the hobbyists and misfit autodidacts, the terminally clever and earnestly comic, and this is a shame. In a 1986 tribute, Kennedy writes of the recently dead Philip Larkin that he “achieved a poetry from which even people who distrust poetry, most people can take comfort and delight.” Of how many living poets can we say the same? Of how many Pulitzer Prize winners, especially in recent years? Philip Levine? Sharon Olds? You’re kidding. Kennedy plays with the permeable membrane separating light verse and the rest of poetry. His blurring of boundaries adds to the fun and to the reader’s engagement with the poems: Is this funny? Am I supposed to laugh? Or is this serious? Is funny the same as trivial? Is serious the same as important? In 1978, when reviewing Kingsley Amis’ The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse, Kennedy said poetry “generally speaks with the deep voice of feeling” while light verse “tends to twitter and chirp.” He adds: 

“As in the elderly man’s damnation of the entire human race, a piece of light verse may profess strong feelings. Yet all the while it is affirming them, its jingly form and its verbal playfulness set up an ironic betrayal of that affirmation.” 

Into which camp does “Terse Elegy for J.V. Cunningham” (Dark Horses, 1992) stray?: 

“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 unresponding 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?” 

X.J. Kennedy was born on this date, Aug. 21, in 1929, in Dover, N.J. Happy eighty-fifth birthday, Mr. Kennedy.

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