If You’re Not Averse to Comic Verse . . .
X. J. Kennedy: Peeping Tom’s Cabin: Comic Verse 1928–2008,
BOA Editions, Ltd., 2007, 118 pp. $16.00 Paper, $21.95 Hardcover.
A Review by Ed Zahniser
I’m all but certain that X. J. Kennedy read at the First National Poetry Festival at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., October 22–24, 1962. He began being published in 1956. My father extricated me from suburban Maryland high school classes all three days to attend the readings. I don’t recall anyone reading limericks at that august gathering. Robert Frost did not read but sat in front of us one day—you could hear the readers through his hearing-assist device.
It is great to see Kennedy come out with Peeping Tom’s Cabin: Comic Verse 1928–2008. The book is dedicated to John Mella, publisher of Light Quarterly, probably the only remaining earnest (earnest, not serious) literary magazine devoted to light verse. (USA today calls it “. . . much like The New Yorker without the annoying hubris.”) Because he was born Joseph Charles Kennedy, you can probably read even X. J. as a pun from this author of noted children’s books as well as poetry and fiction textbooks.
I grew up on David McCord, Ogden Nash, and Don Marquis as well as the usual canon of Pound, Cummings, Eliot, Marianne Moore—among the several hundred books of poetry my father collected. But by the 1960s the light verse genre was losing its last popular magazine outlets. Newspapers had mostly dropped light verse in the 1950s. One of my mentors, Paul H. Oehser, of my father’s generation, had contributed light verse to “The Conning Tower” column by Franklin P. Adams (FPA) and other venues.
Kennedy doesn’t care, and I’m glad. “To die from rhyme / Or drink takes time— / Sit down, now, what’s your rush?’ There are “Clean limericks and clerihews” and “The tawdry bawdry” and wonderful “Takeoffs” like “Three Versions of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’” in the manners of Robert Lowell, W. S. Merwin, and Sylvia Plath.
Begins the Lowell: “I heard the Lamb descend on Scollay Square, / Not Back Bay, where the rattle of his jaws / Suffered the whey-faced children clicking pool / Cues to besmirch our Sabbathtide . . . .” “Don’t gaze at me like Jesus, lambie pie” wraps up the Plath. “It’s males like you, you sheepdipped rat. J’accuse. / I’ve had enough. And screw you too, Ted Hughes.” Merwin manner is of course all one sentence, so not quotable here. A four-line redaction of Poe’s “The Raven” ends “Quoth the raven six times, ‘Nope.’” Dante’s “Comedy” is three stanzas of nearly terza rima and a concluding 10th line—end-rhyming with “God”—“In retrospect, that whole damned trip seems odd.”
Or try: “Dylan Thomas / Showed early promise. / His name’s no dimmer, man, ‘ On Robert Zimmerman.”
This book is No. 105 in BOA’s American Poets Continuum Series, whose No. 1 is The Fuhrer Bunker poems by W. D. Snodgrass, the rising young star who also read at the 1962 festival. Good for BOA for putting out earnest comic verse in these overly serious postmodern times.
Ed Zahniser is a Poet and Fiction writer. He is author of four books of poetry, most recently Mall-Hopping with the GREAT I AM (Somondoco Press.) He lives in Sherpherdstown, W.V