Peeping Tom’s Cabin: Comic Verse 1928-2008, by X. J. Kennedy. BOA Editions, 2007. $17.00pb.
Reviewed By: David Mason
Here it is, folks, almost free of charge-another taxonomical declaration! In our time there are precisely two kinds of poets: populists and snots. The populists believe that something generally referred to as “the world” is more important than their poetry. The snots believe their poetry is more important than “the world.” Class dismissed. You do the rest and line up your poets under each heading. You might be surprised at who ends up in one queue or the other.
Light verse, of course, is always populist, no matter how artful or challenging it may be. As W. H. Auden put it in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse, which we professionals call TOBOLV,
Light verse can be serious. It has only come to mean vers de societé, triolets, smoke-room limericks, because, under the social conditions which produced the Romantic Revival, and which have persisted, more or less, ever since, it has been only in trivial matters that poets have felt in sufficient intimacy with their audience to be able to forget themselves and their singing robes.
So while most of us Late Romantics are locked in the cell of ourselves, screaming for the key, poets like X. J. Kennedy are making audiences giddy with delight. Who would you rather be?
Of course Mr. Kennedy is not only the court jester. This year alone he has published two versions of his poetic legacy: In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955-2007, and the volume under review here. If Secaucus has, even when it is painfully funny, perhaps the better claim on our sober attention, Peeping Tom’s Cabin is an irreverent treasure I would hate to be without. In fact, I would hate to be without either of these new books, which puts Mr. Kennedy in a rather rare class of poets. The fact that he has also written or edited many other books I would hate to be without only heightens the distinction.
Readers may be aware that the X in X. J. Kennedy is a fiction, a function of poetic superstition dating back to the author’s Navy days, when he submitted poems to The New Yorker, adding the X to distinguish himself from some other Joseph Kennedy, and at least one of the poems was accepted. As X. J. remarks in the introduction to Peeping Tom’s Cabin, “The magazine’s poetry editor, Howard Moss, must have liked sailors.”
The subtitle of the present volume is Comic Verse, 1928-2008. For those of us who are mathematically challenged, the introduction again comes in handy:
True, I wasn’t born until 1929 and didn’t print my verse till 1956; but like the ancient Chinese, I reckon that your age begins at the moment of your conception, almost a year before you emerged. Right away, a fertilized egg starts gestating poems. It just hangs there, piling up material that won’t see print in a hurry. Like all true artists, it can’t be rushed.
Come to think of it, millions of incipient American poets must have been aborted before they ever printed a line. That can’t be totally bad.
Some poets and critics who perhaps should have been aborted are still among us and tend to dismiss laughter as a lower form of discourse. Even Auden warns us about the limits of light verse:
It is not until the great social and ideological upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that difficult poetry appears, some of Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and others. The example of these poets should warn us against condemning poetry because it is difficult. Lightness is a great virtue, but light verse tends to be conventional, to accept the attitudes of the society in which it is written.
Either I must differ, or I must say that Kennedy’s choice of the term “comic verse,” disdaining “light” or even “lite” verse, better suits the subversive stance of his work. While he makes full use of conventional forms, including the limerick, the clerihew and the triolet, his poems lack the sentimentality that so thoroughly saturates American life. His grown-ups are sexual animals, his children other types of beast. In fact, he gives us a new series of “Ghastly brats” here, building on earlier children’s books like, Brats, Fresh Brats and Drat Those Brats! These brats often come to bad ends, and few tears are spent on them by poet or reader. Here are just two samples:
Where the dump truck left its load
Of crushed stone to build a road,
Ab and Og, those oafish twins,
Rolled and romped with foolish grins,
Somersaulting in hot tar.
No one now knows where they are,
But, recalling as we drive
How they used to be alive,
In our throats we feel a lump
Every time we hit a bump.
While we dazed onlookers gawk
Baby’s borne off by a hawk.
Few, I bet, if any chickens
Ever gave it tougher pickins.
This is transgressive humor, all the more punchy for puncturing preciousness. Kennedy, who edited Tygers of Wrath, a certifiably great anthology devoted to anger and invective, plumbs our darker moods with surprising insouciance. Those who have met the gentleman know his gentleness, and might be shocked by the ungentle dose of reality his comedy demands. A sly bluntness about life’s travails underlies much of the laughter.
He also displays a robust appetite-or at least displays people of appetite-for sex in all its permutations. His “Flagellant’s Song,” for example, ends,
When men get old
Desire grows mold
And wives turn cold and thoughtful-
Then tender words
Are for the birds.
They’ll give good wives a gutful,
But flail and lash
Inspire men’s flesh
As oats and hay, racehorses.
If more wives flayed
They’d be well laid
And rare would be divorces.
I dreamed a sight
Of Sade last night,
Alive like you and me.
“Your grace,” said I,
“How did you die?”
In little bits, said he.
Some of you will recognize Kennedy’s repertoire dipping into the song bag in those lines, while others may recall a certain verse pattern from the potty humor of your youth. How well I remember these immortal lines:
In days of old
When knights were bold
And toilets weren’t invented,
You dropped your load
In the middle of the road
And walked away, contented.
The same stirring template is used by Kennedy in “Uncle Ool’s Renunciation of the Ill-paid Trade of Verse,” which begins,
In ancient Greece
When men chased fleece
And girls wore golden panties,
Ran smack across
A pack of crazed Bacchantes.
The man can handle a stanza. But there’s more sex here, too, if you look for it. In the polymorphous catalogue we find “Apocryphal Note to Moby Dick”:
Had Pip the cabin boy been drowned?
Not true by half, for Quequeg found
That dim perverted little wanker
Asucking on the Pequod’s anchor.
And “A Faulkner Hero”:
Hardly famous for moral perfection,
Popeye couldn’t erect an erection,
So instead of his knob
He’d use corn on the cob
As a means to express his affection.
A revision of Yeats:
Who will go drive with Fergus now?
You lazy cocks and cunts,
I thought I’d ask you anyhow.
Well don’t all speak at once.
And this well-known note on prosody:
Is the thrust rest thrust of loins and peter
To come at the same time.
The effect of this sort of thing is a great leveling we associate with satire, a carnival in which all humans are created equally bestial, and no hierarchies can stand. All forms of pretense and even dignity get laughed out of the room. Of course this would include literary pretense, and some of Kennedy’s most delicious humor is reserved for writers. Taking his cue, it would seem, from Wendy Cope, he thrice revises “Mary had a little lamb.” This version is “In the earlier manner of Lowell”:
I heard the Lamb descend on Scolly Square,
Not Back Bay, where the rattle of his jaws
Suffered the whey-faced children clicking pool
Cues to besmirch our Sabbathtide. Blue laws
Forbade, O Mary, ferrying to school
His bleating, white and pear-
Shaped body that must gallop lest the claws
Of teacher snatch him while the pallid owl
Of wisdom blink and stutter. Trappists, howl
Your miserere mingled with guffaws.
Mother of God, what fleece more white than whales’
Could rack their blubber vats? Your hickory switch
Thwacks tail and pupils. Birched raw, thunderstruck,
Lamb-fish, fish-lamb-Christ, who knows which is which?
He sells Nantucket whalers down on luck
Spumoni marinare, rum in grails,
And spurns the sweating rabble who would grease
Their griddle with his bladder. He was sure
To go where Mary went, for she was pure
And swaddled in the whaleskins of his fleece.
Oh, to have heard those priceless enjambments read aloud by Orson Welles! Clerihews are another way of skewering writers:
Flushed himself down the drain
When it seemed clear
That The Bridge didn’t cohere.
Stepped out on the breeze,
His work unrequited.
Still, he keeps being sighted.
For you Modernists out there at your computer terminals, Kennedy offers “The Gist of Troubadour Poetry,” subtitled “as it might be rendered by / Reader’s Digest Condensed Books”:
Though soft coos
from the dovecote
come to my ears
Ezra Pound would have laughed himself silly.
If, as I say, A Prominent Bar in Secaucus contains more resonant comic work, there are plenty of places where the two books could have overlapped: “Song to the Tune of ‘Somebody Stole My Gal'” appears in Secaucus, and aficionados of Kennedy’s performances have heard him sing it complete with air-trumpet solo.
Somebody stole my myths,
Stole all my gists and piths.
Somebody pinched my Juno and Pan,
And caused my spiritual crisis.
Among more recent fare are the forgiving “For Allen Ginsberg,” written in Blake’s trochaics, and “God’s Obsequies,” a rueful comic masterpiece beginning with “the funeral of God” and ending with the human capacity (perhaps deluded) for faith. I mention these items from the book I am not reviewing because, it would seem, Kennedy’s muse is always comic in the best sense, meaning she is sometimes sad, sometimes wistful, sometimes angry. Sometimes laughter winces. Peeping Tom’s Cabin displays his more anarchic side, a wildness that can resemble the aging Yeats:
Oh I’ve been to psychiatrist and priest,
I’ve read an uplifting book,
But it’s cold and I hunger to walk forth dressed
In the quilt of the world’s warm look.
Auden, who loved a good generalization, suggested that what we call light verse predominates in a society that feels more coherent, less angst-ridden and stressed. While I’m not sure I can think of a time when the world was not angst-ridden and stressed, I can see his point-that the way comic verse implies a connection with an audience differs from so much poetry composed in the conviction that it will never be read except by ill-paid critics. Still, Kennedy’s comic verse, while punchy and accessible, arises from the same tormented world the rest of us dwell in. The difference is that he refuses to be flattened (or flagellated?) by it. He looks at the dark side and laughs. He looks at the light side and laughs. The quality of the laughter is not always the same, of course, but more importantly, he lets us in on it.
To borrow again from Secaucus, in a poem called “On Being Accused of Wit,” Kennedy writes,
Not so. I’m witless. Often in despair
At long-worked botches I must throw away,
A line or two worth keeping all too rare.
What strikes me about both selecteds is how rigorously they’ve been edited, how brief they are-at least in comparison to the tomes of some other poets-and how modest. This is in keeping with the humor and humility of the poems they contain, their lightly worn mastery of craft, their emphasis on the world beyond the poet’s nose.
Having said this, and having done the best I can do as a reviewer, which is to quote and admire, let me finish with another grand pronouncement: No reader of poetry in English can afford to miss X. J. Kennedy.[/private]