Authors: X. J. Kennedy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet and editor

Author Works


Nude Descending a Staircase: Poems, Song, a Ballad, 1961

Growing into Love, 1969

Bulsh, 1970

Breaking and Entering, 1971

Emily Dickinson in Southern California, 1974

Celebrations After the Death of John Brennan, 1974

Three Tenors, One Vehicle, 1975 (song lyrics in sections by Kennedy, James Camp, and Keith Waldrop)

French Leave: Translations, 1983

Hangover Mass, 1984

Cross Ties: Selected Poems, 1985

Dark Horses: New Poems, 1992

The Lords of Misrule: Poems, 1992-2001, 2002

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

One Winter Night in August, and Other Nonsense Jingles, 1975 (poetry)

The Phantom Ice Cream Man: More Nonsense Verse, 1979

Did Adam Name the Vinegarroon?, 1982 (poetry)

The Owlstone Crown, 1983

The Forgetful Wishing Well: Poems for Young People, 1985

Brats, 1986 (poetry)

Ghastlies, Goops, and Pincushions: Nonsense Verse, 1989

Fresh Brats, 1990 (poetry)

The Kite That Braved Old Orchard Beach: Year-Round Poems for Young People, 1991

The Beasts of Bethlehem, 1992

Drat These Brats!, 1993 (poetry)

The Eagle as Wide as the World, 1997

Uncle Switch: Loony Limericks, 1997

Elympics, 1999

Exploding Gravy: Poems to Make You Laugh, 2002

Edited Texts:

Mark Twain’s Frontier, 1963 (with James Camp)

An Introduction to Poetry, 1966, 10th edition 2002 (with Dana Gioia)

Pegasus Descending: A Book of the Best Bad Verse, 1971 (with Camp and Keith Waldrop)

Messages: A Thematic Anthology of Poetry, 1973

Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, 1976, 8th edition 2002 (with Gioia)

Tygers of Wrath: Poems of Hate, Anger, and Invective, 1981

The Bedford Reader, 1982, 7th edition 2001 (with Dorothy M. Kennedy and Jane E. Aaron)

Knock at a Star: A Child’s Introduction to Poetry, 1982, revised 1999 (with Kennedy)

The Bedford Guide for College Writers: With Reader, Research Manual, and Handbook, 1987, 6th edition 2002 (with Kennedy and Sylvia A. Holladay)


X. J. Kennedy is a pseudonym for Joseph Charles Kennedy, one of the most proficient writers of rhymed and metered poetry for children as well as adults. He was educated at Seton Hall College in New Jersey, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Columbia University awarded him an M.A. degree in 1951. He subsequently served in the military and studied at the Sorbonne. He was appointed teaching fellow at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor from 1956 until 1962, where he was associated with other well-known writers, including Donald Hall and W. D. Snodgrass.{$I[AN]9810001842}{$I[A]Kennedy, X. J.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Kennedy, X. J.}{$I[tim]1929;Kennedy, X. J.}

X. J. Kennedy

(© Christopher Longyear)

During these years, his first book of poetry, Nude Descending a Staircase, appeared. Titled after artist Marcel Duchamp’s painting of the same name, the collection won the Academy of American Poets’ Lamont Award and received enthusiastic reviews. It set the tone for Kennedy’s long publishing career; the poems in Nude Descending a Staircase are witty and satiric, and they use traditional verse forms. The use of end rhyme and regular meter has become Kennedy’s hallmark, leading some critics to assume that he writes primarily light verse. Yet some poems in the collection, such as “The Man in the Manmade Moon,” deal with fragmentation and the disintegration of human values.

Kennedy has had a long academic career and is known to many readers as a compiler of anthologies and textbooks. He taught at the University of North Carolina in 1962, the same year he married Dorothy Mintzlaff, with whom he had five children. In 1963, he joined the faculty of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, as assistant professor, and he later was appointed professor of English. His second collection of adult poetry, Growing into Love, was published eight years after the first, and the poems rely on the same devices as well as being similar in theme. Wit and humor are used to portray the degeneration of society in the academic as well as the public world. Although many of these poems achieve a certain depth, the collection is marked by a self-conscious, distracting cleverness.

Bulsh, published in a limited edition only a year later, consists of twenty-eight heroic couplets concerning Bulsh, an iconoclastic character who takes aim at traditional Christian doctrine. The volume irritated some critics, who believed that it crossed the boundary from irreverent to intolerant.

The decade of the 1970’s was productive for Kennedy. In 1971, he and his wife founded Counter/Measures, a periodical of traditional verse. His first British volume, Breaking and Entering, was published by Oxford University Press and contains work from his first three books as well as seven new poems. British critics praised the book for its ornate conventional verse forms that couch distinctly modern ideas. This was followed shortly by Emily Dickinson in Southern California, which contains seventeen poems satirizing the freewheeling lifestyle of Southern California in Dickinson’s style. Although Kennedy makes no attempt to mimic Dickinson’s refined sensibility, he captures her phrasing with remarkable precision.

During these years, Kennedy edited Messages: A Thematic Anthology of Poetry and coedited Pegasus Descending: A Book of the Best Bad Verse. In 1974, Celebrations After the Death of John Brennan appeared, a long poem based on the suicide of one of Kennedy’s former students. This marked a departure: Kennedy’s typical wry humor and rigid meter are missing, replaced by an overtly serious engagement with the subject. In 1975, a collection of children’s verse, One Winter Night in August, and Other Nonsense Jingles, appeared, later followed by The Phantom Ice Cream Man: More Nonsense Verse.

Kennedy retired from his duties at Tufts in 1979 and devoted himself to freelance writing, leading to another decade of remarkable productivity. He wrote several textbooks on literature, translated a collection of poetry from French, published three more collections of juvenile verse and a juvenile novel, and edited an anthology entitled Tygers of Wrath: Poems of Hate, Anger, and Invective. His most important publication during the 1980’s was a thirty-year anthology of his own poetry entitled Cross Ties: Selected Poems, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for poetry in 1985. The volume has five chronological sections divided by “Intermissions” which include epigrams, epitaphs, and children’s poems. Cross Ties won favorable reviews for its humorous treatment of serious themes and accomplished formal prosody. Some of the poems are reminiscent of Robert Frost’s measured lines, and like Frost, Kennedy uses the vernacular to great effect. His best poems create a tension between strict form and the apparently spoken voice.

In 1989, Kennedy was awarded the Braude Award for Light Verse from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. One of the remarkable aspects of Kennedy’s long career is that his work has changed so little. Dark Horses: New Poems, published in 1992, utilizes the same strict prosody, wordplay, and iconoclastic stance as his early work. The Lords of Misrule offers sixty poems that explore a wide range of subjects, such as an elegy for Allen Ginsberg, a meditation on the relic of St. Teresa of Avila which Spain’s General Francisco Franco kept at his bedside, and a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

BibliographyBjork, Robert E. “Kennedy’s ‘Nothing in Heaven Functions as It Ought.’” Explicator 40 (Winter, 1982): 6-7. This explication develops the premise that the poem “exploits the concept of norm and deviation …to deal with the nature of heaven and hell, questioning our conventional notions about each.” Bjork argues that Kennedy cleverly deviates from the reader’s expectations of a Petrarchan sonnet in order to demonstrate that “Nothing in heaven, or in this sonnet, functions as it ought.”Brownjohn, Alan. “Light Fantastic.” New Statesman, January 14, 1972. Offers a detailed analysis of Kennedy’s method in Breaking and Entering.Collins, Michael. “The Poetry of X. J. Kennedy.” World Literature Today 61, no. 1 (1987): 55-58. This essay provides an overview of Kennedy’s poetic achievement. Its main thesis is that Kennedy writes in a way that characteristically fuses “the serious and playful” and that “Kennedy is a poet of contemporary middle-class America.”Gwynn, R. S. “Swans in Ice.” The Sewanee Review 93 (Fall, 1985). Gives an overview of Kennedy’s subject matter: violence, suicide, and the limitations of our own humanity.Kennedy, X. J. “Counter/Measures: X. J. Kennedy on Form, Meter, and Rime.” Interview by John Ciardi. Saturday Review 4 (May 20, 1972): 14-15. Ostensibly, Ciardi, a major poet in his own right, was interviewing Kennedy about the purpose of Kennedy’s literary magazine, Counter/Measures. In fact, however, the interview presents both poets with opportunities to formulate their ideas about the merits of form in poetry and the possibility that poems can be enduring “artifacts.”Kennedy, X. J. “The Poet in the Playpen.” Poetry 105 (December, 1964): 190-193. In this review of children’s books by Marianne Moore, Rumer Godden, and J. R. R. Tolkien, Kennedy formulates a defense of juvenile literature. He observes that “Randall Jarrell and John Ciardi of late seem to write more books for children than for the rest of us” and comments, “It is almost as if we were back in the days when a Blake or a Smart could expect nobody but children to listen to him.”Mitchell, Roger. Review of Cross Ties: Selected Poems, by X. J. Kennedy. Poetry 147 (January, 1986). Discusses Kennedy’s place in modern poetry and finds that the entire romantic revival has passed him by.Nichols, Loxley. “Facing the Gorgon.” National Review, July 18, 1986. Places Kennedy’s poetry in the tradition of metaphysical seventeenth century verse, like Emily Dickinson’s and T. S. Eliot’s poetry before it.Prunty, Wyatt. “Fallen from the Symboled World”: Precedents for the New Formalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. In arguing for the existence of a new formalism that takes “doubt as its starting point” and “builds relation from the ground up,” Prunty briefly cites Kennedy as a poet of particular power. Kennedy’s “On a Child Who Lived One Minute” is called a “little masterpiece” because the contrasts between gentleness and harshness in rhythm, rhyme, and diction “match Kennedy’s attitude toward the infant girl’s death,” creating “the fusion of an abiding absurdity with which we all live.”Sharp, Ronald A. “Kennedy’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase.’” Explicator 37 (Spring, 1979): 2-3. Sharp largely ignores the similarities between Kennedy’s poem and Marcel Duchamps’s painting titled Nu descendant un escalier, but he does demonstrate that “the poem turns on an implicit analogy between beautiful women and beautiful poems: Both are composed of individually beautiful parts but their unity is dynamic.”
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