I could occupy a guilty afternoon compiling the names of writers I should have thanked. We take them for granted and they seem so remote and we are so unworthy, and all of the other lazy rationalizations you care to assemble. Of course, the sincerest way to express gratitude for a writer is to read him. That’s applied criticism. Take it the next step in this digital age of accessibility and thank the writers whose labors fulfill Dr. Johnson’s stringent prescription: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”
My review of X.J. Kennedy’s new collection, That Swing: Poems, 2008–2016 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), will be published later this month in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Kennedy turns eighty-seven in August. I don’t have his address but my review is another sort of birthday card. Kennedy’s first collection, Nude Descending a Staircase, was published in 1961, and I started reading him a few years later. How many living writers can you name who have supplied enjoyment and the strength to endure for half a century?
I thanked Guy Davenport, in person and in writing. The best of his essays still keep me going. Davenport himself was dutiful at thanking writers who pleased him. You might not expect the arch-guardian of the Modernist legacy to find kind words for J.V. Cunningham, but Davenport’s tastes were more elastic than his devotion to Ezra Pound suggests. He said Cunningham’s poems were “as well made as wristwatches.” In turn, X.J. Kennedy wrote “A Terse Elegy for J.V. Cunningham,” which concludes:
“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?”
[The lines quoted at the top are from E.A. Robinson’s “An Old Story.”]