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X. J. Kennedy

X. J. Kennedy was born in Dover, N. J., on August 21, 1929, shortly before the crash of the stock market. Irked by the hardship of having the name of Joseph Kennedy, he stuck the X on and has been stuck with it ever since.

Kennedy grew up in Dover, published his own science fiction magazine, Terrifying Test-Tube Tales, at age 12, went to Seton Hall (B.Sc., '50) and Columbia (M.A., '51), then spent four years in the Navy as an enlisted journalist, serving aboard destroyers. He studied at the Sorbonne in 1955-56, then devoted the next six years to failing to complete a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. But he did meet his future wife Dorothy there. He has taught English at Michigan, at the Woman's College of the U. of North Carolina (now UNC Greensboro), and from 1963 through 1978 at Tufts, with visiting sojourns at Wellesley, U. of California Irvine, and the U. of Leeds. In 1978, he became a free-lance writer. He is a former poetry editor of The Paris Review, and his poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, The Hudson Review and have been aired on the Today show, Good Morning America, and Garrison Keillor's radio programs. Kennedy has also published numerous works for children, including more than ten collections of verse and two novels over the past two decades, and he has co-authored several textbooks, including An Introduction to Poetry with Dana Gioia, now in its tenth edition. Recently, Kennedy and Dorothy have collaborated as editors on several textbooks, including Knock at a Star: A Child's Introduction to Poetry (Little, Brown & Company, 1999). 

Kennedy's first collection of poetry, Nude Descending a Staircase (1961), won the Lamont Award of the Academy of American Poets. Other awards include the Los Angeles Times Book Award for poetry for Cross Ties (1985) , the Aiken-Taylor Award for Lifetime Achievement in Modern American Poetry (given by the University of the South and The Sewanee Review), Guggenheim and National Arts Council fellowships, the first Michael Braude Award for light verse, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Golden Rose of the New England Poetry Club, the Bess Hokin Prize for Poetry magazine, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, honorary degrees from Lawrence and Adelphi universities, and Westfield State College, and the National Council of Teachers of English Year 2000 Award for Excellence in Children's Poetry.

"Kennedy's work remains cultured, likable, and witty."—Publishers Weekly

"X. J. Kennedy belongs to that class of uncompromising formalists that includes Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice and W. D. Snodgrass ... Widely regarded, and occasionally disregarded, as a practitioner of light verse ... he serves his light with a healthy dose of darkness; his best work is a tug of war between levity and gravity."—Eric McHenry, New York Times Book Review

"Very little human experience is beyond the range of his keen eye and his well turned lines. We are fortunate to have him working among us."—Jan Schreiber

"These are beautiful poems [Dark Horses] by one of the best poets we have."—Richard Moore, Sewanee Review

At a Reading of Poems of a Poet's Agonies

We sit and listen, writhing in our chairs,
Pierced by a pain far worse than what he shares.

First published in TRINACRIA #5 (Spring 2011)

First Confession

Blood thudded in my ears. I scuffed,
Steps stubborn, to the telltale booth
Beyond whose curtained portal coughed
The robed repositor of truth.

The slat shot back. The universe
Bowed down his cratered dome to hear
Enumerated my each curse,
The sip snitched from my old man's beer,

My sloth pride envy lechery,
The dime held back from Peter's Pence
with which I'd bribed my girl to pee
That I might spy her instruments.

Hovering scale-pans when I'd done
Settled their balance slow as silt
While in the restless dark I burned
Bright as a brimstone in my guilt

Until as one feeds birds he doled
Seven our Fathers and a Hail
Which I to double-scrub my soul
Intoned twice at the altar rail

Where Sunday in seraphic light
I knelt, as full of grace as most,
And stuck my tongue out at the priest:
A fresh roost for the Holy Ghost.

Copyright 1960, 1961 by Doubleday Co.


Nude Descending a Staircase

Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,
A gold of lemon, root and rind,
She sifts in sunlight down the stairs
With nothing on. Nor on her mind.
We spy beneath the banister
A constant thresh of thigh on thigh—
Her lips imprint the swinging air
That parts to let her parts go by.
One-woman waterfall, she wears
Her slow descent like a long cape
And pausing, on the final stair
Collects her motions into shape.

Copyright 1960, 1961 by Doubleday Co.

A Brat's Reward 

At the market Philbert Spicer 
Peered into the bacon slicer— 
Whiz! the wicked slicer sped 
Back and forth across his head 
Quickly shaving—what a shock!— 
Fifty chips off Phil's old block, 
Stopping just above the eyebrows. 
Phil's not one of them thar highbrows.

Copyright 1985 by X. J. Kennedy

The Devil's Advice to Poets

Molt that skin! Lift that face!—you'll go far. 
Grow like Proteus yet more bizarre. 
In perpetual throes 
Majors metamorphose— 
Only minors remain who they are. 
Copyright 1985 by X. J. Kennedy

Little Elegy

for a child who skipped rope 

Here lies resting, out of breath,
Out of turns, Elizabeth
Whose quicksilver toes not quite
Cleared the whirring edge of night.
Earth whose circles round us skim
Till they catch the lightest limb,
Shelter now Elizabeth
And for her sake trip up death.

Copyright 1989 by X. J. Kennedy

Cross Ties

Out walking ties left over from a track
Where nothing travels now but rust and grass,
I could take stock in something that would pass 
Bearing down Hell-bent from behind my back: 
A thing to sidestep or go down before, 
Far off, indifferent as that curfew's wail 
The evening wind flings like a sack of mail 
Or close up as the moon whose headbeam stirs 
A flock of cloud to make tracks. Down to strafe 
Bristle-backed grass a hawk falls—there's a screech 
Of steel wrenched taut till severed. Out of reach 
Or else beneath desiring, I go safe, 
Walk on, tensed for a leap, unreconciled 
To a dark void all kindness.
                                          When I spill 
The salt I throw the Devil some and, still, 
I let them sprinkle water on my child.

From Cross Ties: Selected Poems, University of Georgia Press, copyright 1985 by X.J. Kennedy

Nothing in Heaven Functions as It Ought

Nothing in Heaven functions as it ought: 
Peter's bifocals, blindly sat on, crack; 
His gates lurch wide with the cackle of a cock, 
Not turn with a hush of gold as Milton had thought; 
Gangs of the slaughtered innocents keep huffing 
The nimbus off the Venerable Bede 
Like that of an old dandelion gone to seed; 
And the beatific choir keep breaking up, coughing.   

But Hell, sleek Hell, hath no freewheeling part: 
None takes his own sweet time, none quickens pace. 
Ask anyone, "How come you here, poor heart?"— 
And he will slot a quarter through his face. 
You'll hear an instant click, a tear will start 
Imprinted with an abstract of his case.

From Cross Ties: Selected Poems, University of Georgia Press, copyright 1985 by X. J. Kennedy


     Old tumbril rolling with me till I die,
Divided face I'm hung with, hindside-to, 
How can a peace be drawn between us, who
     Never see eye to eye?

     Why, when it seems I speak straight from the heart
Most solemn thought, do you too have to speak, 
Let out a horselaugh, whistle as I break 
     The news to Mother that I must depart?
     Moon always waxing full, barrage balloon,
Vesuvius upside down, dual rump roast, 
Cave of the Winds, my Mississippi coast, 
     Cyclops forever picking up and chucking stone,

     Caboose, poor ass I'm saddled with from birth,
Without your act, the dirty deed I share, 
How can the stuck-up spirit in me bear 
     Coming back down to earth?

From Cross Ties: Selected Poems, University of Georgia Press, copyright 1985 by X. J. Kennedy

The Seven Deadly Virtues


        Strict constancy's an overrated virtue:
        A little flexibility can't hurt you.


        While greedy bastards grab bucks by the fistful,
        The generous grow poorer and look wistful.


        Spurning forbidden fruit—peel, pulp, and juice—
        The chaste know peace, but rarely reproduce.

Good Cheer

        When grief and gloom are what you want, good cheer
        Is nothing but a big pain in the rear.


        Though sometimes modesty's worth emulation,
        It's worse than useless during copulation.


        A certain charm inheres in strict sobriety
        Until one ventures forth into society.


        When talk is soft, there's no harm in the humble
        Who, when shrill protest's called for, merely mumble.

Copyright 2002 by X. J. Kennedy

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