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Back in the Swing

By: A.M. Juster
April 24, 2017

n 1960 a blindfolded panel on the quiz show What’s My Line? quickly recognized Carl Sandburg as its “mystery guest.” For much of that television audience, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and other poets were famous—and Ezra Pound was notorious. And not just the “serious” poets were celebrities; Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker continued to be household names well into the twentieth century.

In our postmodern echo chambers known as “English departments,” light verse is a dimly recalled genre. Most English professors would be stunned to learn that a major university press has just released a book by America’s greatest living light verse poet—and very few would be able to name him.

X.J. Kennedy, who burst onto the literary scene by winning the 1961 Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets for his Nude Descending a Staircase, is amused by the lowly status of light verse. It is thus no accident that his new book, That Swing: Poems, 2008-2016, begins with a meditation on another aging survivor, Lonesome George, a giant Galapagos tortoise who is the last of his subspecies:

                                           Dead-ending male,
                                 lone emblem of despair,
                         he slumps on his kneecaps, tail
                                 antennaing the air.
                         For a long moment we bind
                                 sympathetic looks,
                         we holdouts of our kind,
                                 like rhymed lines, printed books.
                                                 (“Lonesome George”)

Like Lonesome George, Joe Kennedy “solemnly persists” at what he does best.

Unlike Lonesome George, Kennedy has had to evolve a bit, and he is not entirely happy about the changes. His next four poems mourn an idyllic youth surrounded by physical beauty and filled with a sense of security. That sense is so strong he can recall his mother laconically reacting to what easily could have been a fatal accident:

                         And when fish-hating Uncle Norman’s reel
                         Cranked in a tuna fit for Gargantua’s meal,
                         Who had to be that fish’s glad receiver?
                         My old man. Whipped out his butcher’s cleaver
                         And in our basement took a vicious whack
                         At its backbone, causing the blade
                         To take off into space. It made
                         Straight for my mother, missed her by an inch.
                         She wasn’t one to flinch
                         But drily said, Good shot. (“Insanity in the Basement”)

His mother also appears as the comic villain in a tale of lost childhood treasures—and lost profits:

                         BLAM went the planet Krypton. One child fled
                         By spaceship, grew up to be Superman
                         Whose X-ray eyes would ogle Lois Lane
                         Right through her dress. My mother grimly fed
                         The furnace with my funnybooks—“Such trash
                         To waste your money on!” I saw flames scorch
                         Batman and Robin, watched the Human Torch
                         Sizzle and twist like bacon, and the Flash
                         In a flash leaps to ashes. (“My Mother Consigns to the
                                 Flames My Trove of Comic Books”)

These well-crafted poems, brushing off postmodern gloom and making readers burst out laughing, are the type Kennedy's fans tend to remember—but his darker side is never far away. That Swing concludes its opening section with three poems mining the same territory as the previous four, but with an elegiac tone not present in the more humorous poems.

His last poem in the first section finds him in a Caribbean hospital recovering from hip replacement surgery:

                 My right hand wanders down as if to feel
                 My cold new hip joint of titanium steel. (“Early Morning in
                                                  Turks and Caicos Hospital”)

As he lies recovering, he hears a “bleating wail…down the corridor,/A native infant tugged forth from the womb” and ponders the child’s future: “Heartbreak interspersed with joy,/Unfulfilled hopes, toil, grinding poverty,/A life spent at the mercy of the sea.” Despite the envisioned heartaches, one can sense a twinge of envy.

The next section, “Saints and Others,” profiles individuals and balances dark and light in about the same proportion as the previous section. Its two most memorable poems are about poets. Poems about the suicides of poets fill our literary journals, but “A Word from Hart Crane’s Ghost” nevertheless succeeds at haunting because of the nonchalant tone of the speaker’s voice, punctuated by the offhand “oh” at the end of line seven:

               Why did I leap?
               You may well wonder. Sleep
               With a woman and build a bridge
               Across two minds, two bodies, inch by inch—
 
              God I was tired.
              The whole steel cognizance swung around and backfired.
              The sucking Gulf seemed, oh,
              A deep green cinch.

The tour de force of this section—and perhaps the entire book—is “Hardy’s Obsequies.” It is based on the macabre yet funny story that describes why Thomas Hardy was buried with his cat (not to mention both wives) to honor his wish for burial in his hometown of Dorset. It is a classic Kennedy poem. The language is simple, enhanced by a few wicked rhymes (Abbey/tabby; bookish mourner/Poets’ Corner; pumper/plumper), but otherwise the strange facts speak for themselves until they reach the inexorable, and yet unexpected, punchline (which I will not spoil for you).

The next section includes Kennedy’s “versions” of poems by Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Ronsard, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Desnos and Sabatier.  His labeling is a shockingly rare instance of a poet downplaying his own achievements. In an era where poets pass off their work as “translations”—often with no connection to the meaning, sound or form of the original text—Kennedy calls his “versions,” a term more in the spirit of Robert Lowell’s “imitations.”

Lowell’s imitations deviated enough from the texts that inspired him that he made the right choice in embracing a label acknowledging his liberties. Kennedy has no need for such humility. His versions capably mimic the form and feel of the French poems—and his translations are closer in meaning to the originals than many standard translations.

Kennedy moves from “Versions” to “Diversions,” the section that most reflects the poems that established his reputation as a light verse poet. He opens with “Riposte,” a thirty-line reply to this Garrison Keillor limerick about former New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn:

         The poetry editor Quinn
        Likes poems that are shapely and thin,
                And not about owls,
                Nebraska, your bowels,
        Or personal redemption from sin.

“Riposte” revels in every item Quinn allegedly disdains. Other poems in this section, such as “On a Young Man Remaining an Undergraduate for Twelve Years” and “Cold Beer at the Paul Revere Capture Site,” also find gentle ways to have fun while making a serious point.

In “Easters” Kennedy returns to a recurring subject, the lapsed Catholicism that infuses his memories of an idyllic lost childhood. Many formal poets have long revered Kennedy’s hilarious and subtly important “Nothing in Heaven Functions As It Ought,” a sonnet in which the octave describes a bumbling Heaven and the sestet describes an efficiently fascist Hell. The poem is loaded with prosodic jokes; the iambic pentameter of the octave is deliberately bumpy while the iambic pentameter of the sestet is smoothly regular except for the inversion of a couple of iambs—a traditional way to darken a poem’s lines.

The highlight of “Easters” is “Jews,” a poem that amusingly depicts Irish-Jewish kinship—until the last stanza. It is a technique Kennedy used masterfully in “Fireflies,” a poem in his previous book, which veers from a whimsical description of Tennessee fireflies at dusk to a jarring final two lines on Guantanamo Bay. In “Jews” Kennedy similarly jolts us with a reminder that parallels can only be taken so far:

                 And yet the Jews I know don’t seem to mind.
                They have one up on me. More centuries past
                Remain their heritage. My lucky kind
                Haven’t been herded, shipped to death camps, gassed.

The concluding section, “Last Acts,” focuses on the major theme of the book: encroaching mortality. It opens with the relentlessly grim “Departure,” which portrays a vain woman’s suicide. The poems that follow have a wide variety of tones and settings, but he ends the book on a somewhat upbeat note:

                But isn’t there a sweetness in this sense
                That moments count for more, now that we strive
                To drag our heels downhill while mending rents,
                Finding content in waking still alive?
                Lord, may our progress fall prey to correction
                As we keep heading down by indirection. (“At Eighty”)

Now eighty-six, we should all hope Kennedy amends this closing prayer, and asks the Lord to let him produce quality work well into his nineties.