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The Poet of Play: Sonny Williams on X. J. Kennedy

Read: X. J. Kennedy and KidLit

I first heard X. J. Kennedy read in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I was in a lecture hall at the local university, weary and dispirited from an overdose of “serious” poetry readings, and I glanced at the doorway, deliberating on whether or not I should make my escape to the local bar. Most poetry readings are in effect a kind of Chinese water torture, and I would recommend to the U.S. government that if it desires to glean intelligence from a suspected terrorist, simply set the culprit in a room with a bunch of poets, and, very soon, he will be crying uncle. However, perhaps as a masochistic test of my own endurance, I decided to stick it out.

As dour and dull as most poetry readings are, burdened by humorless earnestness and a nauseating obsequiousness, Kennedy’s performance and recitation was light and lively, providing a moment of much-needed levity and entertainment, and renewed the pleasure of hearing verse read aloud.

[private]Kennedy’s sensitivity to the wonderings and experiences of young people is what makes his children’s verse successful, especially the verse that subverts adult authority and turns the familiar and known upside down. Even as children attempt to understand their world, learning from parents, school teachers and other adult authority, they revel in the breaking of rules, the laws of nature and logic. The challenging of reality allows children’s imaginations to flourish, teaches them to trust their own vision of the world and not to take everything at face value. Kennedy’s best verse is impudent, irreverent and funny, and he plays with traditional forms, often writing short poems in rhymed quatrains and trimeters, and sometimes in more complex nonce forms, which makes them well-suited to be read aloud, adding yet another dimension of pleasure.

Thomas Goldstein remarks that “Kennedy assumes the pose of the self-deflating satirist,” whose “forte is the pithy and the humorous observation embellished by rhyme.” While Goldstein is correct, I dislike that term “embellished.” The best poets use rhyme for more than mere embellishment, decoration or ornamentation. Rhyme is a necessary element in Kennedy’s work as it is integral to the music of the poems. Rhyme is also essential to create the humorous snap of the lines, the epigrammatical crack of the whip, of which children are quite fond. Kennedy’s deft skill at meter and rhyme are important elements that distinguishes him from other children’s poets. Even as he throws common situations into chaos, with exaggerated language, inverted logic and kooky characters, the bouncy rhythms and silly rhymes provide an order to the disorder, which indicates to the child that he is in a world of play.

Though Kennedy has written much successful poetry for adults, he has long been drawn to children’s poetry, and he began writing much more of it as the style of poetry changed during the 1960s and 70s, a time in which rhyme and meter were disfavored:

In the early ‘70s, I was feeling downcast about my poetry for big people. Rhyme and meter, which I loved, had gone out of style, and the loud howls of the Beat Generation now echoed through the land.

However, the strict boundaries that demarcate children’s and adult poetry seemingly disappear in Kennedy’s writings, for Kennedy doesn’t make distinctions between serious, light and children’s poetry. He boldly includes children’s verse in two collections, Nude Descending a Staircase and Cross Ties. As Bernard Morris notes in his book Taking Measure: The Poetry and Prose of X. J. Kennedy, “. . .the inclusion of these poems here demonstrates that he does not see much difference between the adult and children realm when it comes to writing poetry.” Even with his so-called “serious” poetry, Kennedy’s wit, wordplay and playful spirit are always on call. Morris notices that play is basic to both adult and children’s poetry: “They are complementary expressions of a single vision.” Through his verbal playfulness, Kennedy presents humans as “dislodged and disillusioned, displaying them in raucous surroundings as fools or fallen angels.” Yet through it all, we shall have a rollicking good time regardless of the forces of the universe.

Kennedy’s first collection of children’s verse, One Winter Night in August and Other Nonsense Jingles (1975), was received warmly and consists of amusing alliterative verse:

With walloping tails, the whales off Wales

Whack waves to wicked whitecaps.

And while they snore on their watery floor,

They wear wet woolen nightcaps.

Not all reviews were positive, however. June Cater in the School Library Journal writes, “the author has little understanding of children’s sense of humor . . . . Moreover, many of the verses are morbid and unpleasant.”

Indeed, some of Kennedy’s humor is quite odd, as in the poem “A Coughdrop Lies in My Doghouse,” in which a boy discovers a coughdrop gnawing at an old cow shin in the doghouse. While Kennedy is obviously attempting a play on perspective, this type of poem does not achieve its desired effect. However, this first collection introduces readers to a type of poetry that they would see again and again, such as “Mother’s Nerves”:

My mother said, “If just once more

I hear you slam that old screen door,

I’ll tear out my hair! I’ll dive in the stove!”

I gave it a bang and in she dove.

Regarding the “morbid and unpleasant” aspects of his verse, Kennedy, writing in Horn Book, says,

[I] 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 the 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.

Invitations to read at elementary schools followed the publication of One Winter Night in August, and Kennedy received encouragement by meeting the children who enjoyed his poetry, who relished his traditional forms and quirky rhymes:

They and I seemed to share a fondness for the chime of rhyme and the bounce of a regular rhythm. Those are among the most spellbinding possible elements of poetry, I believe, and although many serious poets of the day have dismissed such formal constraints as old hat, I felt renewed in my faith that they work upon a reader or listener unconsciously.

One Winter Night in August was followed by more nonsense verse. The Phantom Ice Cream Man: More Nonsense Verse (1979), illustrated by David McPhail, consists of more than fifty nonsense jingles. McPhail’s pen drawings are detailed and devilishly fun, and the cover drawing with the ice cream man and a wolf looking over his shoulder, both with their tongues hanging out, has a salacious tone. An uneven collection of poems, the reader is rewarded with some interesting, and ominous, perspectives, such as General Custer spying an Indian headdress on the prairie in the limerick “Custer’s Last Stand”:

“I don’t like this,” said General Custer,

“How come every last man has missed muster?

Was that somebody scary

Peering over the prairie

And not just an old feather duster.

The humorous form of the limerick creates laughter at the observation, but it also belies the slaughter that is soon to transpire.

The dark and menacing is a prevalent theme, as two giants kick down castles and eat lava from a volcano in “Hickenthrift and Hickenloop.” The gastronomic high jinks continue, as Kennedy plays on children’s fears of being devoured, when a competition ensues that ends unpleasantly for one of them:

Hickenthrift and Hickenloop

Stood fourteen mountains high.

They’d wade the wind, they’d have to stoop

To let the full moon by.

Their favorite sport, played on a court,

Was called Kick Down the Castle-

They’d stamp their boots, those vast galoots,

Till king lay low as vassal.

One day while spooning hot rock soup

From a volcano crater,

Said Hickenthrift, “Say, Hickenloop,

Who of us two is greater?”

Across the other’s jagged brow

Dark thunder seemed to drift

And Hickenloop, with one swift swoop,

Ate straight through Hickenthrift.

While Phantom is not all dire, with Kennedy conjuring up characters who brush their teeth with sand and Jack the Giant trading in ground bones for peanut butter, the collection is shadowed by the darker contours of a child’s mind. “My Dragon” is a poem that animates every child’s wish who has been picked on:

I have a purple dragon

With a long brass tail that clangs,

And anyone not nice to me

Soon feels his fiery fangs,

So if you tell me I’m a dope

Or call my muscles jelly,

You just might dwell a billion years

Inside his boiling belly.

With Did Adam Name the Vinegaroon? (1982), Kennedy tries his hand at an alphabet bestiary, using animals both ordinary and fantastical. In a Note at the beginning of the book, Kennedy writes, “Four of these creatures are fabulous. Three are extinct. Two are constellations. The rest are actual.” He ends the Note by saying, “I believe that, while a book of verse for children needs to be funny at times, it might as well, whenever it can, sneak in a little poetry.”

He includes common and familiar creatures such as lions and crocodiles, but he also includes lesser known beasts, such as the Narwhal, “the unicorn of whales,” the Ounce, ” a brand of spotted cat,” a Pangolin with “plates like tin,” the Xiphosuran, or the Horseshoe Crab, and mythological creatures such as the Hippogriff and the Kraken.

Here is the title poem, “Vinegaroon”:

The Vinegaroon, a scorpion

With jaws like little sickles,

When filled with feelings of alarm

Emits the smell of pickles.

What’s that? A Vinegaroon? Keep still!

Just tiptoe softly by it

Unless you crave a sour dill

And you are on a diet.

The jaws like sickles is a dark metaphor of death, but this is factual information, for the vinegaroon is believed to be venomous, and the arachnid indeed emits a vinegary odor when disturbed.

Not all of Kennedy’s children’s verse is silly, nonsensical and absurd. In The Forgetful Wishing Well: Poems for Young People (1985), seventy poems for older children present the challenges of growing up, city life, as well as poems on creatures, seasons and wonders. A blend of fantasy and reality, fathers with prickly chins give kisses and car crashes lead to fist fights. In most of the poems, children are the speakers, who still possess a child-like wonder, but an older viewpoint of a maturing child is evident, in which children are attempting to understand the world and their place in it, as in the section called Growing Pains, and the poem “Maturity”:

I take my plastic rocket ship

To bed, now that I’m older.

My wooly bear is packed away-

Why do the nights feel colder?

In the section called Creatures, the poem “Owl” is funny, but it has a darker, adult-like undertone, which blurs the line between childhood and adulthood. As children grow up, they realize that owls really aren’t wise, and neither are many adults:

The diet of the owl is not

For delicate digestions.

He goes out on a limb to hoot

Unanswerable questions.

And just because he preens like men

Who utter grave advice,

We think him full of wisdom when

He’s only full of mice.

There are also poems in which children make observations that would be overlooked by most adults, such as in the poem “Ant”:

An ant works hard

Hauling great weight

In our back yard,

But you can’t

Hear an ant

Pant.

Adult concerns, such as the loss of crops, appear as well. “Ten Billion Crows” is a poem of anger and invective, derived from the ancient tradition of the poetic curse:

Ten billion crows with cracking bills

Ate all the corn off our eight hills.

Then round and round the sky they soared

And crowed and cruised, and snoozed and snored.

Dad said, “Well, that’s the way it goes,

All that fine corn inside those crows.”

I hope their bellies ache for weeks.

I hope they crash and break their beaks.

The poem “Lighting a Fire,” in the section called Wonders, reveals the wonders children have for simple things, such as what clouds are made of, or how a match creates fire:

One quick scratch

Of a kitchen match

And giant flames unzip!

How do they store

So huge a roar

In such a tiny tip?

In the section called In the City, the poem “Forty-Seventh Street Crash” expresses the reality of life in a city. Despite our attempts to protect our children, they are often exposed to ugly and violent things:

Truck stopped.

Taxi didn’t.

Bumper bopped.

Windshield splintered.

JERK! says truck,

Why didn’t you stop?

I did, says hack.

Fists whack.

The poem “All Around the Year” consists of a lovely metaphor for winter that evinces a melancholy for growing up and the inevitable passing of years. The poem echoes Frost (Robert, not Jack):

Now Winter, that mean polar bear,

Goes loping back inside its lair

And lets a river, melting, tug

Loose of its terrible bear hug.

With tree roots now, earth starts to seethe.

Now early shoots peer forth to breathe.

Now willow branches will grow high

And so will I. And so will I.

That word “seethe” is particularly ominous. Its more archaic meaning is to boil or to soak in a liquid, but has evolved to mean rage, intensely hot, to be in a state of rapid agitated movement, and to suffer violent internal excitement, very much like what a child feels, both physically and mentally while growing up.

Knock at a Star: A Child’s Introduction to Poetry (First published in 1982, revised in 1999), edited with his wife Dorothy M. Kennedy, is one of the better children’s anthologies available and was created specifically for children, not adults, not teachers. The collection is important in understanding Kennedy’s own views toward children’s verse and what defines children’s poetry. The Kennedys provide “classic” authors, such as Walter de la Mare, the underappreciated Charles Causley, Ogden Nash, as well as contemporary authors like Ted Kooser and Douglas Florian, including Florian’s visually pleasing shell-like poem, “Seashells”:

The collection has a wide variety of poetic styles such as limericks, concrete poems, haiku, songs and stories, and the emphasis is on inclusion and the free play of imagination. Children are encouraged to write their own poetry, since it is part of their daily lives, and Kennedy provides brief explanations of the types of poetry. In an Afterword to Adults, Kennedy states, “We gathered poems that we have found to amuse, delight, and engage children. . . .We have tried to leave out what children ‘ought’ to like.” Kennedy offers assistance to adults who wish to encourage their children to read poetry and attempt to write it themselves.

Some of my favorite poems by Kennedy, and probably his most memorable, are the brat poems, which appear in three volumes: Brats (1986), Fresh Brats (1990) and Drat These Brats! (1993). These poems are politically incorrect, as children are often punished, quite violently, for their mischievous indiscretions. Kennedy’s brat poems are an addition to the naughty child genre of Cautionary Verses and The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts by Hilaire Belloc, Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls by William Cole, and Vile Verses by Roald Dahl. Consider these lines from Dahl’s poem “Down With Children” from The Witches:

Down with the children! Do them in!

Boil their bones and fry their skin!

Bish them, sqvish them, bash them, mash them!

Brrreak them, shake them, slash them, smash them!

Children meet dire fates, as in Dahl’s “Goldie Pinklesweet,” who gobbles down chocolate-coated pills until:

She stops. She hiccups. Dear, oh dear,

She starts to feel a trifle queer.

Goldie Pinklesweet is one of those nasty children from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, along with the other more famous spoiled whelps such as Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt.

Compare Kennedy’s verse, whose children’s demises are a bit more subtle and disguised, yet no less riotously funny:

Stephanie, that little stinker,

Skinny-dipped in fabric shrinker.

We will find her yet, we hope,

Once we buy a microscope.

 

Garth, from off the garden wall,

Ate a rosebush roots and all.

Doctors worked on him for hours.

The family requests, “No flowers.”

Stupid little Lucy Wankett

Washed her automatic blanket

While the thing was tilled plugged in.

Notify her next of kin.

Unlike Dahl’s verse, which is often moralistic and preachy, Kennedy simply dramatizes the absurd situations in which these children find themselves, which often leads to their own undoing, making any discussion on proper conduct unnecessary, for any child will recognize the underlying message.

In other poems, the children are involved in impish pranks and absurd antics, and many times, no consequences befall the mischievous child. Here’s a poem by Hilaire Belloc:

“The Hippopotamus”

I shoot the hippopotamus,

With bullets made of platinum,

Because if I use leaden ones

His hide is sure to flatten ‘em.

Now compare one of Kennedy’s:

For his mother’s mudpack Brent

Substituted fresh cement.

Mom applied it; in a while

Found it hard to crack a smile.

The silly black-and-white drawings by Ron Barrett match the absurd verse in Ghastlies, Goops and Pincushions (1989). Funny situations and characters dominate this collection, such as in “Longest Lizard”:

The longest lizard,

Diplodocus,

Had hammer teeth with which to knock us

If, back when he was, we’d be current.

I guess it’s just as well we weren’t.

Though Kennedy is masterful with rhyme, meter and wordplay, that fourth line, “If, back when he was,” is awkwardly phrased, making it difficult to get the rhythm. Yet Kennedy has more hits than misses, and children will giggle at the embarrassment of possibly seeing someone naked, such as in this poem under “Limericks”:

My Scottish great-granduncle Milt’s

Favorite sport is to climb up on stilts

And then stand on his head,

Which arouses great dread

And the warning, “Don’t do that in kilts!”

Kennedy takes a different tack with portraits of religious devotion in The Beats of Bethlehem (1992). As the book jacket reveals, “Folk legend tells that on Christmas Eve all beasts are blessed with the power of speech. In 19 poems, Kennedy imagines what those creatures present at the Nativity might have said on that night. Each animal speaks according to it nature, more or less sensitive to the Christmas miracle.” Some of the animals are more traditional and what we might expect, such as a horse, a camel, ox, sheep and a cow:

“Cow”

He came to conquer death

And yet his hands are small.

To warm Him in his stall,

I breathe my clover breath.

Yet other more unconventional animals, such as predators, are given voice as well:

“Hawk”

Before Christ, yesterday,

From clouds I dived, gave chase,

And fed. But in this place

Of peace I shall not prey

On living things. Those six

Young hares ripped from their burrow

Were lovely, though. Tomorrow,

Old plump hen, watch your chicks.

The hawk hunts and takes life, which seems antithetical to the purpose of Christ’s birth; however, the taking of life is part of its nature, one assigned by God, and it is expected to fulfill its task. In the poem “Bat,” the animal hears the Child whisper, “Dear Bat, come do/That task which God assigns to you,” to which the bat responds by hunting mosquitoes.

But there is a concern for all beasts, great and small, as even the insects, such as the ant, worm and mosquito, reveal their thoughts:

Who but a blind bat swaddled in his wings

Could dream that I might bite the King of Kings?

Most of the poems are reverent, but some of the more diminutive animals wonder at the significance of Christ’s birth to them:

“Worm”

Through the deep midnight of the ground

I move, immune to light and sound,

Mere mouth with neither ears nor eyes

Beneath the stall in which He lies.

My lot in life is but to toil

At chewing tunnels through packed soil.

A human babe is born divine?

Well, what concern is that of mine?

Or the beetle, who asks, “Can any beast be more despised than I!” Yet, when he lifts eyes to see the Christ child, “they blaze with blesséd light.” Such comments teach children that all of creation is significant and necessary.

Kennedy returns to his typically more humorous poetry by using a popular form. Along with the Brats poems, one of my favorite forms of Kennedy’s is the limerick. Uncle Switch: Loony Limericks (1997) is a collection of absurd and upside-down situations in which Uncle Switch eats grass, bites mosquitoes and whose world is a Rabelaisian carnival.

Uncle Switch, as he swam in the brook,

Rashly swallowed a worm on a hook,

But the fillet of sole

Who was holding the pole

Declared, “Shucks, he’s too dinky to cook.”

The universe of Uncle Switch is entirely turned topsy-turvy, and children enjoy the opportunity to see the laws of nature broken:

Uncle Switch has this tree whose routine

Is as mixed up as any I’ve seen:

Apples ripe, red, and round

Jump right up off the ground,

Fasten fast to a branch, and turn green.

Kennedy’s first picture book, Elympics (1999), introduces readers to Olympics for elephants, with Trinket the sprinter, Tram the slalom expert, and Elijah the diver. The poems serve as an exaggerated and entertaining introduction to the Olympic Games. With an emphasis on good sportsmanship, the humor is much gentler here than in the Brats books. This is followed by Elefantina’s Dream (2002), about an elephant who wishes to be an ice skater.

In addition to verse, Kennedy has also written two children’s novels, The Owlstone Crown (1983) and its sequel The Eagle as Wide as the World (1997), both involving the adventures of the Tibb twins, Tim and Verity. The genesis of The Owlstone Crown is based on a story Kennedy told to his children while on vacation, cabin-bound on Cape Cod by days of pouring rain, (which is reminiscent of the origins of stories by Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde). It is a blend of detective novel and fantasy, about a strange country whose center is a giant moonflower. Tim and Verity are two orphans who have been adopted by the ugly and cruel Ma and Paw Grimble to work their farm in Metal Horse, New Jersey. The 12-year-old twins spend their days harvesting parsnips, until something unexpected occurs; they are visited by a talking detective ladybug, who tells them that their grandparents are alive and being held prisoner in Other Earth by the dictator Raoul Owlstone. So Verity and Tim embark on their fantastic adventure to rescue their grandparents and save Other Earth. Though cluttered with a few too many “all of a sudden” moments that serve as awkward transitions, the story is fast-paced with fresh and lively characters.

Kennedy’s children’s verse has garnered numerous awards, among which are the Best Children’s Books of the Year from the Library of Congress, Best Children’s Book of the Year from Bank Street College, Teachers’ Choice Book, Best of the New Books, Outstanding Book of the Year citation from the New York Times Book Review, Michael Braude Award for Light Verse from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and is included in the Best Books for Children.

His children’s books have been reviewed in Booklist, Christian Science Monitor and Washington Post Book World, as well as by Samuel French Morse in Horn Book and Donald Hall in New York Times Book Review. Morse calls Kennedy’s poetry “skillful and funny” and Hall “a joy of rhythm here, a joy of rhyme.” Kennedy’s verse is variously described as “Charming, delightful, witty,” and “always unassumingly elegant.” Furthermore, as Henry Taylor has observed, Kennedy’s poetry is best when “he is thinking seriously within playful frameworks.”[/private]

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Sonny Williams lives in Dallas, Texas. He edited the anthology Story Hour: Contemporary Narratives By American Poets. He has written a novel, The Escaped, and a collection of poetry, Absinthium.

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