Friday, April 30, 2010

Poetry Makers - X.J. Kennedy

X.J. Kennedy has taught me a lot about poetry—what it is, where it can be found, and how it's made. In the anthology Knock at a Star: A Child's Introduction to Poetry (compiled by X.J. and his wife Dorothy) he wrote:
Poetry is all around us, sometimes in words we hardly bother to hear. We'll catch a striking phrase ("That new baby is bright as a new penny") or an unusual name ("Spanish Fork, Utah") or an old saying ("Red sky at night is the sailor's delight," "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence"), and we'll realize with a start that we've heard a bit of poetry. Once in a while you see some words, not in a book, that don't claim to be poetry—and yet seem to be. They say something that makes you think and feel about it. There's something to remember in the very sound of the words.
Not one of Kennedy's poems appears in Knock at a Star, but the importance of his voice in this volume is undeniable. He introduces each section of poems and describes the features that link them thematically. He talks of nonsense and fun, word play, rhythm, and so much more. In one section he writes "Good poetry is music to our ears."

I love the notion of music ringing through the words of a poem. Can you hear the music in this poem?
Summer Cooler

In the summer young Angus McQuade
Carries off to his castle of shade
Two cool soothing pillows,
The Wind in the Willows,
And an ocean of iced lemonade.
You can find this poem in Small Talk: A Book of Short Poems, selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Susan Gaber.

Before we read more of X.J's poetry, let's learn a bit about him.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
X.J.: I started writing poetry when my third-grade teacher made us write a Christmas poem. My effort was a slavish imitation of Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," but the teacher liked it well enough to put it in our local newspaper. ... It must have been in the nineteen-fifties, when I started writing verse in a bigger way, that I noticed all the engaging poetry for kids being written by poets who usually wrote for adults: Randall Jarrell, John Ciardi, William Jay Smith, Theodore Roethke, Eve Merriam, and others. What fun, I thought, and tried to do likewise.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
X.J.: Fooling around with words and putting them together and once in a while hearing them click. Another lovely bonus from writing for kids is the mail you get from readers: not just the grim dutiful sort that results when teachers force children to write a letter to an author, but things the child noticed in a poem and wanted to shout about.

Who/what made you want to write?
X.J.: I honestly don't know. Writing just looked like something that would be fun to do. I've been told that as an infant in a highchair, I could be kept quiet for hours if given a pencil to push around a piece of paper.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
X.J.: MFA programs didn't exist when I was starting out, so I never studied creative writing except for one tutorial I had to take at the University of Michigan in order to enter the Hopwood writing contest. It was taught by a fine old fellow who'd never written a poem himself. But I've studied poetry in school a lot. I'm an all-but-dissertation PhD. Mainly, I've long loved the stuff, learned a lot of it by heart, and tried to write a lot of it and threw a lot away.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
X.J.: First I think of a line or two that have a certain rhythm to them, and sound worth going on with. Then I go on with them, and rewrite and rewrite until I can't rewrite anymore.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
X.J.: Poem "Little Elegy" in my first adult collection, Nude Descending a Staircase, and reprinted in a new-and-selected poems, In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus (Johns Hopkins U Press, 2007).

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
X.J.: I have a new book of poems for children, CITY KIDS, to be published by Tradewind Books in Vancouver, BC, after having been rejected by all the publishers in New York, one reason given that my books have never been best-sellers. Most of the poems in it are more or less serious glimpses of the lives of urban youngsters. There's a chance that it will be picked up and published in the States after all, but at the moment (January 2010) this isn't for sure. For years and years Boyd Mills Press has had a book called CHILDREN PICK THEIR FAVORITE POEMS OF X.J.K., all ready to go, except that I believe they're still trying to get it illustrated.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
X.J.: William Butler Yeats.

Your favorite place to write?
X.J.: In bed, composing lines on the monitor of my brain-pan. Eventually I have to get up and write them down.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
X.J.: From Stanley Kunitz (and I quote from memory): "The decline of rhyme and meter among poets has made poetry easier to write but harder to remember."

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
X.J.: J. Patrick Lewis.

I've had great fun reading through X.J.'s poems deciding what to share. Given the recent geologic events in Iceland, let's start with this poem from Exploding Gravy: Poems to Make You Laugh.
Backyard Volcano

Why oh why did an active volcano
Have to poke up its nose in our yard?
It goes gloop like a sink full of Drano
And it showers down rocks that hit hard.

From its crest you can gaze upon masses
Of boulders that bubble and seethe,
And it's giving off ghastly green gases
That nobody's able to breathe.

"Balls of fire!" Uncle Jack yells, jackknifing
Down into that smoldering cone,
"What a fine, steamy day to go diving!
Last one in is an old molten stone!"

Now each night with a cup of hot java,
Mother props up her feet, feeling snug
While she watches red rivers of lava
Roll over our living-room rug.
Perhaps one of my favorite books of comic verse is X.J.'s Ghastlies, Goops & Pincushions. It is a book filled with rhyme and rhythm and rollicking good fun. Snickers and guffaws have been known to escape from my lips while reading this book. Here are two of my favorite poems from it.

I shear sheep in all sorts of shapes
Like shooting stars and spangles.
I shear them in the shapes of apes.
My ewe has four right angles.

I give some sheep a camel's back,
Two mountains and a valley.
I make short shrift of them with shears.
Me, I don't shilly-shally.

I shear sheep short. Their wiry wool
Is well worthwhile to save.
Oh, what sheer joy it is to give
A shaggy sheep a shave!



Walk with a bluebird in your heart,
Along life's highway ambling.
You'll always have an ample stock
Of songs and eggs for scrambling.

Walk with a rainbow in each eye—
They'll light your way, I'm told,
And you'll find, hanging from each ear,
A big fat pot of gold.

Walk with a skunk beneath each arm—
They just might make you nervous,
But when you want to be alone
Those skunks will prove of service.
While I am extremely fond of X.J.'s nonsense and light verse, I have always been quite taken with his book The Beasts of Bethlehem. Each of the 19 poems is a mask poem, written from the perspective of an animal that was or could have been in the stable on the night of Christ's birth. Here are two poems the exemplify the beauty and wit in this collection.

On Christmas Eve, the night unique,
They say we beasts find tongues to speak,

Yet at this crib I am so stirred
That, staring, I can say no word.



Permit me, friends, my evening meal,
These few small crumbs of bread I steal,

I mean no harm. Remember that.
Why do you shriek and call your cat?

The Infant's mother fears no mouse
But lets me scamper round her house

Of manger hay. Beside this Child,
Let man and mouse be reconciled.
Since X.J. mentioned that his favorite poem is "Little Elegy," let's end with it.
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.
To learn more about X.J., check out these sites.
Thanks oodles to X.J. for his participation and for helping to wrap up this year's Poetry Makers series.

All poems © X.J. Kennedy. All rights reserved.


  1. What a great poet with whom to end this month's series! Congratulations on a fabulous month of poets and poetry!!

  2. Tricia, this has been a wonderful month. Thank-you.

    And I ADORE these poems! The Beasts of Bethlehem is one I'll have to get, since I remember singing The Friendly Beasts in the first grade, and the magic of that song has stuck with me.

    Also, Advice cracks me up. I just love the work of X.J. Kennedy, and I envy anyone who can work effectively in bed!!!

  3. He is a master.
    This month has been nourishing and delightful, Tricia. Thank you for each day of it!

  4. OK, I'm just starting to go back and read your poetry month entries. What a great one this is! I love X.J. Kennedy's poems that I've seen, but you shared some new (to me) ones--yay!

    Summer Cooler - Doesn't that sound like a perfect day for kid OR adult?

    So much to love here. I'm not familiar with the Beasts of Bethlehem. The horse kills me. Hoping this is still in print, as I have to get it. And Tanita, The Friendly Beasts is one of my favorite Christmas carols from childhood, too!

    And Little Elegy makes me smile and cry at the same time, as always. Love, love, love this poem.

    Thanks, Tricia and X.J. What a fantastic way to start my day today!