FEATURED POET: X.J. Kennedy

One of our goals is to introduce you to (or reacquaint you with) accomplished poets whose work is enjoyed by children or teens. We start with the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children winners before moving on to other poets.

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X.J. KENNEDY

(American, b. 1929)

Equally at home in poetry for children and adults, a superb teacher and critic as well as a legendary poet and anthologist, X.J. Kennedy (known to his friends as Joe) was born in Dover, New Jersey, on August 21, 1929, shortly before the crash of the stock market. For summaries of Kennedy’s voluminous biography, please visit:

In 2000, Kennedy received the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children for his body of work. In 2009, the Poetry Society of America gave him the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime service to poetry.

The Kennedys have five grown children and six grandchildren. They now live in Lexington, Massachusetts, in a house half century-old and half new.

INTERVIEW BY STEVEN WITHROW

In your afterword to John Ciardi’s The Reason for the Pelican, you wrote that Ciardi was responsible to a large extent for the change in climate that allowed poets writing for adults to publish children’s verse without shame. Do you feel that poets writing for adults are more open today to children’s poetry than they were in past decades, or has the trend moved in the other direction?

 Back when John Ciardi’s verse for children was flowering, you could count numerous other poets who had ventured to write for kids. Ciardi’s example certainly encouraged me. While I’m not exhaustively familiar with the current scene, I don’t see that happening now. One reason for this lack may be that book publishers, overly aware of the bottom line, bring out so few new collections of verse for children nowadays. Maybe there’s more kidpo being written and published on blogs and websites, but I daresay that pre-readers and very young pre-hacker-stage kids can’t get to it.

Do you think the borders between poetry for children and poetry for adults are more permeable than many teachers and writers think? Should children and teens be given more opportunities to explore poetry written for adults?

You bet, the borders are permeable, all right. When Dorothy (M. Kennedy) and I were scouting out stuff to put in anthologies, we were always elated to find adult poems that kids could dig—for instance, Wallace Stevens’s wonderful rigmarole “John Smith and His Son John Smith” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Pete at the Zoo.” We put those in an anthology for pre-readers. I could never share Kenneth Koch’s conviction that you could read Milton ’s “Lycidas” to little kids and if they didn’t grasp all of it, so what, they’d get some of it. But it’s true that the receptiveness of little kids is easy to underestimate. As for teenagers, anthologies aimed at them have always been hard to tell from anthologies aimed at adults.

We are clearly facing a difficult market (some say a dire crisis) for publishing and selling children’s poetry collections and anthologies. Lee Bennett Hopkins said only three new anthologies were published last year in the US. Do you see this as an especially troubling development, or a challenge that poets have always faced?

It’s troubling, all right, more so than ever. Digital technology, I think, makes it easier for poets to circulate their work, but harder to reach readers who will keep it on hand and sometimes go back to it. When read on screen, poems aren’t physical objects, like poems on pages of a book, and I suspect we tend to pay ’em less attention and dismiss ’em with a click forever.

Do you think more rigorous standards should be adopted for teaching poetry in schools? Do you think a more structured and mentored educational course of study, such as is common in classical music or ballet, would benefit poetry? Or should learning to read and write poetry follow a different course?

God, no, the teaching of poetry doesn’t need to be more rigorous. Let’s have fun with it, not make it a duty. No kid needs a course in onomatopoeia or poetic metrics in order to survive. To paraphrase W.H. Auden, thousands have lived without poetry, not one without water. (Auden didn’t say “poetry,” he said “love.”)

I appreciate your response about having fun with poetry. Do we risk making poetry seem too simple, though, and therefore of lesser value than other art forms—something that can be done by anyone instantly without need for instruction, practice, or revision? Or am I missing your point?

 I meant that poetry should be fun to read, that teachers shouldn’t make it a grim duty. What about writing the stuff? I think that should be fun too, even though it may also be work. To be sure, for young writers, instruction, practice, and revision are called for. Without some instruction, kids writing in rhyme risk writing lines like “When you’re alone / It keeps you Capone”—to quote an example from a small girl’s poem cited by Myra Cohn Livingston. The kid had heard the name of Al Capone and threw it in, not knowing what it meant. In such a poem, rhyme is like a big dog taking the poet for a walk. As for revision, ah, if only all poets, young and old, were like Yeats, who told a correspondent that he had a large batch of first drafts and looked forward to months of hard work revising them—“What bliss!”

Many teachers are wary of meter and rhyme, as they have been taught that formal poetry is out of fashion, while others merely use forms as tools to teach grammar and vocabulary. Are meter and rhyme still vital and essential, and what does formal poetry offer to young readers and writers that free verse does not?

No doubt formal poetry is out of fashion, but if kids are to read practically any poems written before 1960 (and many good ones written after), it won’t hurt them to know that rhyme and meter exist. What do those elements have to offer young readers and writers today? Well, for one thing, pleasure, and for another thing, memorability. Consider this well-known poem, of anonymous child authorship—

Jingle bells!
Batman smells!
Robin laid an egg!
The Batmobile
Lost a wheel
And the joker broke a leg!

Crude as that example is, it’s memorable and it gives instant delight. Now imagine those lines rewritten as free verse, and the satisfactions of its rhyme scheme and driving rhythm will be lost. For me, reading most poetry in free verse is somewhat like watching black-and-white TV. There’s a valuable element missing from the viewing experience.

How do you feel about encouraging children (as well as teens and adults) to memorize and recite poems aloud? Are we missing out on much of poetry’s power by simply reading silently or hearing another person’s voice?

Right on. I’m a great believer in learning poems by heart, so that if you’re waiting for a bus and don’t have any reading matter, you can always regale yourself by tapping your memory. In my experience, many teens and college students hate to be asked to memorize. They complain that it’s grand-schoolish. But in teaching poetry, I’d always ask them to find a certain number of lines to learn, from poems of their own choice. Just to get the poems down out of their brainpans and into their bloodstreams. In the end, most of them were glad. And if a poem is any good, it usually gets better from being heard.

How did the poems in your newest book, City Kids: Street & skyscraper rhymes, come together as a book? Did you start with a theme and write poems to match it, or did the theme emerge after you’d written many individual poems? Did you arrange the poems in a specific sequence?

The theme emerged from a handful of poems I’d done. But when I had gathered together more than a dozen of them, they started to look like a book, and I invoked the Muse to give me more items along the same lines. Invoked, not threatened or forced—which is why City Kids took years to complete. The sequence of poems in a collection hasn’t ever interested me. All I care is whether the book has any good stuff in it, wherever it happens to fall. In assembling a book of my own, I’ve generally tried to put a really strong poem first, to encourage readers to keep reading, and to put a good one last, so they’ll feel they got their money’s worth. The rest of the contents get flung in any old place. The story is told of the critic Austin Warren, who when teaching a class at Michigan once delivered a lecture praising the structured arrangement of W.H. Auden’s Collected Poems. He was crestfallen when a student in the back of the room raised a timid hand and asked, “But Professor, aren’t the poems arranged by their titles, in alphabetical order?”

If you would, please pick a poem from City Kids and talk a little about how the poem works from a craft standpoint? How is the poem constructed or formed? What are some of its salient features in sound or image?

OK, here’s “Tires”:

When Poppa comes to Momma’s place
To visit me, he hires
A boy to keep watch on his car
So no one takes the tires
Because last time he came he lost
All four, but Poppa say,
“Why, girl, it’s worth a heap of tires
To see you, any day.”

This brief story-poem began when I read a newspaper story about a New York neighborhood so tough that taxi drivers refused to take fares into it. It evolved into a story about a couple of separated parents, one who lives in such a neighborhood, and the other who’d visit a kid there and have to leave his car parked for an hour or two. I found myself wanting to tell their story from the kid’s point of view. It came out in these two rhymed quatrains, which (for once) didn’t need much rewriting. Probably unconsciously, I seem to pick words that alliterate—takes/tires, last/lost. This wasn’t contrived; the words just came out that way. There’s not any imagery to speak of—just the “heap of tires” in Poppa’s figure of speech. If the poem works at all, maybe it’s because the feelings of Poppa and daughter are hinted at, rather than discussed.

Are you generally optimistic about the future of poetry for young people from both a quality and a popularity standpoint? Will we see a resurgence of poems for kids in the years and decades to come, do you think?

Yes and yes, I think so, but maybe I’m optimistic by nature. Hell, I’m 83, but I usually renew a magazine subscription for two or three years.

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4 thoughts on “FEATURED POET: X.J. Kennedy

  1. HOO-RAY
    for Kennedy,
    X. J.
    who pens poems
    ’bout brats,
    stars and rain
    and always,
    always,
    writes
    HIS
    way.

    There simply is no other like Sir Kennedy. And thanks, again, to Steven for a great
    interview.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful interview. My own copy of Knock At A Star is falling apart & tattered-just like I want-USED! But I think I’ve bought a dozen copies to give to new teachers I’ve mentored through the years. The gift for a lifetime. Thanks to Mr. Kennedy too.

  3. Pingback: Interview with poet and anthologist Lee Bennett Hopkins « Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme

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