Tuesday, July 13, 2021

'An Ironic Betrayal of That Affirmation'

Our fiftieth high-school reunion was cancelled last year because of the pandemic but rescheduled this year on September 11, a twentieth anniversary of another sort. I’ve stayed in touch with only one classmate so I’m already expecting the festivities to resemble a room full of strangers with the flimsiest of things in common. Will I recognize a soul? Will they recognize me? Vanity, of course, lurks behind such questions. X.J. Kennedy in “Meeting a Friend Again After Thirty Years” understands: 

“Take off that mask. I know it’s you.

Those wrinkles, sunken chin,

And goggled eyes can’t quite disguise

Your wry familiar grin.


“This is our mutual Halloween.

As though we mean to scare,

We face each other through a screen

Of fake teeth, whitened hair.”


I admire Kennedy’s approach to a subject some treat sentimentally, a wallow in corny jokes and cheesy nostalgia. This is particularly true for people of my generation, the so-called Boomers. I have no interest in the Good Old Days. In 1970, my contemporaries were already vandalizing much that was best in our inheritance. Today we inhabit the wreckage.


Kennedy is our living master of light verse. In his hands, it’s all about tone. Light verse is not a deep dive into sensitivity. Forget heartfelt sincerity. The appeal of light verse tends to be cerebral rather than gushy or soulful. Yet, at its best, it packs an emotional wallop. It’s Mozartian rather than Wagnerian. In 1978, Kennedy reviewed The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse, edited by Kingsley Amis. He writes:


“No, what separates light verse from poetry is something else--a certain degree of emotional intensity. For while poetry generally speaks with the deep voice of feeling, light verse tends to twitter and chirp.”


That sounds almost dismissive of light verse and seems to underestimate its emotional capacity. Kennedy, I suspect, is eager to avoid the pretentious navel-gazing and didacticism that characterize much contemporary poetry. He continues:


“[L]ight verse is a game of little consequence, and if in its midst a strong emotion should intrude, then its game is spoiled, like a Maypole dance disrupted by an outbreak of concupiscence among the dancers. 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.”


That final phrase describes a writerly stance rare in so earnest an age.


[Kennedy’s poem is collected in In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955-2007 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).]

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