Spotlight on NCTE Poets: X.J. Kennedy, with Lee Bennett Hopkins
“One winter night in August,
while the larks sang in their eggs…“
Welcome to the twelfth episode of SPOTLIGHT ON NCTE POETS! The videos in this series with Lee Bennett Hopkins are brief and personal looks at all the recipients of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.
This series isn’t about analyzing the poets and their work, but rather about preserving Lee’s personal recollections, insights, and memories of each of these amazing people. Through these short interviews, we hope to foster an appreciation of the poets and their work by “reading it and loving it from the heart,” as Lee says.
This installment brings us to a highly acclaimed and accomplished poet, anthologist, and educator.
In 2000, X.J. (Joe) Kennedy became the twelfth recipient of the NCTE award. I have been having a fine time researching Kennedy, though my reading has led me down an X.J. rabbit hole that is vast and deep — just like his collective body of work. It is nothing short of astounding, so I encourage all of you to do yourselves a favor and check out the resources under “More about X.J. Kennedy” at the bottom of this post. The man is clearly a national treasure — which is probably why he just won the prestigious 2015 Jackson Poetry Prize!
Although the NCTE award (and this series of blog posts) focuses on poetry for children, Kennedy actually began his career writing poetry for adults, and I have fallen head over heels for it.
Apparently many others felt the same way when Kennedy’s first published collection, Nude Descending a Staircase, hit the shelves in 1961 — and immediately won the Lamont Award from the Academy of American Poets. Not a bad start, eh?
Behold the title poem of that collection. How could I not be enamored of the lyrical language, the inventive imagery, the wry humor? A trifecta of poetic goodness (click graphics to enlarge and read):
That type of wit and language play pervades all of Kennedy’s work, whether for adults or children, and is what gives his writing that unique and recognizable voice. The Poetry Foundation biography puts it well: “…there is unity in all of Kennedy’s writings—underlying it is a love of poetry and meter, a playfulness verging on the absurd, and a fervent regard for the possibilities of language.”
Not to say Kennedy couldn’t tackle sensitive subjects. He could and did and does, and he does it so beautifully, with imagery that sometimes takes my breath away, as in this lovely piece from his adult collection The Lords of Misrule (2002). It’s a poem that led me places I didn’t expect to go.
This poem, with its meter and envelope rhyme, is also an example of Kennedy’s love of and facility with poetic forms. The Jackson Poetry Prize committee pretty much summed up how I feel about this poem in their award citation: “X. J. Kennedy’s forms are perennial, his rhetoric is at once elaborate and immediate, and his language and diction are always of the American moment. He translates the human predicament into poetry perfectly balancing wit, savagery, and compassion. His subtly dissonant rhymes and side-stepping meters carry us through the realms of puzzlement and sorrow to an intimated grace. The size of his poems is small but their scope is vast.” (from The Book Haven)
So where does the children’s poetry come in? As Lee tells it in the video, the legendary Myra Cohn Livingston read Nude Descending a Staircase and said, “Hey, this guy could write poems for kids!” And so he did. Yay for us!
Kennedy’s style was immediately apparent with the publication of his first children’s book. Take a gander at the delightfully upside-down absurdity of the title poem from One Winter Night in August (1975). It is infectious.
And his exuberant wit continued to entertain …
… and flourish in wacky, wonderful collections like Did Adam Name the Vinegarroon? (1982)…
…the Brats series (1986-1993), Ghastlies, Goops, and Pincushions: Nonsense Verse (1989), and Exploding Gravy (2002).
But just as with his adult poetry, Kennedy also demonstrates his depth and diversity in his poems for young people, as in this piece from The Kite that Braved Old Orchard Beach (1991).
At the same time that Kennedy was moving and amusing the masses with his verse, he was also giving college kids a thorough schoolin’ in literature and poetry, both as a professor of English and an anthologist. Often working alongside his long-time collaborator and wife, Dorothy M. Kennedy (herself an accomplished writer, anthologist, and educator), Kennedy helped create an impressive body of academic textbooks, many of which are currently in their umpteenth edition.
And for the young ‘uns, X.J. and Dorothy collaborated on two stellar, award-winning anthologies. I’m an anthology junkie, and, much as I love him, I’m just about Carl Sandburg-ed out. So what I appreciate about both of these books is the range of poems, the diversity of the poets represented, and the fact that they introduced me to new-to-me poets and poems. There’s no Carl Sandburg in Talking Like the Rain: A Read-to-Me Book of Poems (1992), but there is everyone else from Gwendolyn Brooks to Edward Lear, with Myra and many of the NCTE award winners in between.
For me, though, the pièce de résistance of the Kennedy œuvre is the marvelous Knock at a Star: A Child’s Introduction to Poetry (1982, revised 1999), again a collaboration between X.J. and Dorothy. Lee suggested it as a must-have book for a self-proclaimed anthology junkie, and he wasn’t kidding. I adore all the student-friendly introductions in each section and how the poems are categorized. In his NCTE profile, X.J. speaks about the philosophy behind Knock at a Star and its updated version — an excellent read!
And although Carl Sandburg does have a cameo in this book, he does not creep in with “Fog.” Nope. It’s a Sandburg poem I had never read before. It is small and vast and beautiful. You should get Knock at a Star so you can read it!
And now on to the show! Lee’s reflections on X.J. Kennedy shine the light on a man as expansive and generous as the poetry he has given us.
LEE BENNETT HOPKINS on X.J. KENNEDY
In His Own Words: X.J. Kennedy on
“I begin with a couple of lines that rhyme, or just a few words, and if they look like a poem, I go on with them. Not all of these fragments develop into poems. I have several packing cases full of fragments that went no place. After a while, I look at them again in case they’re ready to go someplace.”
“Poetry makes children more aware of language and wakes them up to the real world.”
“[My poems] don’t try to persuade children that everything is sweetness and light. Such a view, as even infants know, is pure malarkey. The face of a world, however imaginary, has to have a few warts, if a child is going to believe in it; and it must wear an occasional look of foolishness or consternation. It also needs, I suspect, a bit of poetry, and a dash of incredible beauty and enchantment, if possible.” (X.J. Kennedy in an article for Horn Book, via Poetry Foundation)
“I think of verse as anything in rhyme and meter, which may or may not be poetry. For it to be poetry it has to go a little bit deeper than the mere piece of verse like, ‘Thirty days hath September.’ Poetry leaves you wondering and perhaps finding something else when you return to it that you haven’t seen the first time around.” (NCTE profile by Daniel L. Darigan)
More about X.J. Kennedy
Dates: b. 1929 in Dover, NJ
Education: Seton Hall (B.Sc. 1950), Columbia (M.A., 1951), Sorbonne (1955-56), University of Michigan
Occupation(s): Enlisted Navy journalist; English professor at various universities; writer and poet
Recognition: 2015 Jackson Poetry Prize, 2009 Robert Frost Medal for lifetime service to poetry (awarded by the Poetry Society of America), 2004 Poets’ Prize, 2000 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, 1961 Lamont Award of the Academy of American Poets (for his first book, Nude Descending a Staircase), 1985 Los Angeles Book Award for poetry, Aiken-Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, 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, honorary degrees from Lawrence and Adelphi universities and Westfield State College.
First book published: Nude Descending a Staircase (Doubleday, 1961)
- Biography and Bibliography at Poetry Foundation
- Profile of X.J. Kennedy for NCTE, by Daniel L. Danidan
- In-depth video interview with X.J. and Dorothy Kennedy, by Doug Holder of Poet to Poet/Writer to Writer
- X.J. and Dorothy M. Kennedy website for info about the authors and their books
Bonus Video of X.J. Kennedy Reading “Lonesome George”
In the course of my research, I came across several videos of X.J. reading his own work. My favorite is this humorous and empathetic performance of his poem “Lonesome George” in honor of the Galapagos giant tortoise who died in 2012. Here’s to you, George!
WINNERS of the NCTE AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN POETRY FOR CHILDREN
(First links go to NCTE articles about each winner; second links go to NWR video posts) (Criteria for award)
2015 – Marilyn Singer
2013 – Joyce Sidman
2011 – J. Patrick Lewis
2009 – Lee Bennett Hopkins
2006 – Nikki Grimes
2003 – Mary Ann Hoberman
2000 – X.J. Kennedy
1997 – Eloise Greenfield | See Eloise’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1994 – Barbara Juster Esbensen | See Barbara’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1991 – Valerie Worth | See Valerie’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1988 – Arnold Adoff | See Arnold’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1985 – Lilian Moore | See Lilian’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1982 – John Ciardi | See John’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1981 – Eve Merriam | See Eve’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1980 – Myra Cohn Livingston | See Myra’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT on NWR
1979 – Karla Kuskin | See Karla’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1978 – Aileen Fisher | See Aileen’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1977 – David McCord | See David’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
NEXT IN THE SERIES: MARY ANN HOBERMAN
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See more poems in my poetry video library. All poems © X.J. Kennedy or by respective authors in case of anthologies. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved. Video and post content © Renée M. LaTulippe. All rights reserved.