Joseph Kennedy, better known to his readers by the pseudonym X. J. Kennedy, is a self-confessed "schizophrenic" as regards his writings. Kennedy noted to Contemporary Authors that "I write for three separate audiences: children, college students (who use textbooks), and that small band of people who still read poetry." But 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. That "small band" of adults who still read poetry may very well be swelled by Kennedy's verse for children—both nonsensical and serious. By using verse to speak to middle graders, Kennedy is certainly creating a new audience for poetry of all forms.
The Kennedy universe is engaging, humorous, and full of chaos: a place where spaghetti can be used for shoelaces, where a great-great-grandmother sleeps in a tree house, and where torpedoes pour out of a gravy boat. While Kennedy's nonsense verse—in which strange animals are often set in domestic situations—reflects the absurdity of modern life, his more serious children's poems investigate themes from loss to loneliness and aching desire.
It was when Kennedy first sold his poetry, placing two pieces in the New Yorker, that he hit on the use of a pseudonym. Tired of being ribbed about being a relation of Joseph Kennedy, then U.S. ambassador to England and father of future president John F. Kennedy, he added an X onto his name and became X. J. Kennedy, writer. In 1959, Kennedy won one of the University of Michigan's prestigious Hopwood awards, which ultimately led to his first volume of poetry, Nude Descending a Staircase, published by Doubleday. This volume, in turn, won the Lamont Award of the Academy of American Poets.
In 1978, Kennedy left a professorship at Tufts University and set out on a career of writing textbooks. Throughout these next years Kennedy continued to produce poetry of note, winning prestigious prizes and garnering a devoted readership. He and his wife collaborated on textbooks and even started a poetry magazine, Counter/Measure: A Magazine of Rime, Meter, & Song, "a promising new literary magazine," according to the New Republic. Over the years Kennedy also began writing private poetry for his own children, pieces that he stuck away in a drawer after reading a few times. It wasn't until he received a letter from a California poet and anthologist for children requesting poems for children such as two that appeared in his Nude Descending a Staircase that Kennedy realized he might have a new readership. He sent off some humorous poems to the anthologist, who in turn showed them to the children's book editor Margaret McElderry.
In 1975, Kennedy brought out One Winter Night in August and Other Nonsense Jingles and the reception was warm. "[One Winter Night is] both skillful and funny," wrote Samuel French Morse in a Horn Book review. Silly alliterative verses such as "With walloping tails, the whales off Wales / Whack waves to wicked whitecaps" amused not only youthful readers but critics such as one at Kirkus Reviews, who declared Kennedy's "bite-sized nonsense rhymes" to be of "munchy perfection."
Kennedy followed up this collection with The Phantom Ice Cream Man: More Nonsense Verse in 1979, the very year he quit his tenured position at Tufts to go full-time as a freelance writer. "A fresh, original celebration of absurdity," is how Mary M. Burns, writing in Horn Book, described the volume. Such playful and metaphoric verses as "If combs could brush their teeth, / If a needle's eye shed tears, / If bottles craned their necks, / If corn pricked up its ears . . ." made Donald Hall comment in the New York Times Book Review that Kennedy displayed "a joy of rhythm here, a joy of rhyme." Kennedy experimented with alphabetical form in Did Adam Name the Vinegarroon?, a bestiary from A to Z with such colorful descriptions as this alliterative rhyme for the mammoth: "A hairy mountain ten feet tall / With peepers moist and misty, / It stood as solid as a wall, / Its twin tusks long and twisty." Alicia Ostriker, in the New York Times Book Review, noted that Kennedy's alphabet book was "a lively example of its type," and Burns noted in Horn Book that it "is an engaging gathering of creatures . . . elegantly and thoughtfully planned."
Together with his wife, Kennedy next put together an anthology of children's poetry, Knock at a Star: A Child's Introduction to Poetry, with entries from William Blake to Bob Dylan. "Charming, delightful, witty, a treasure of a book," commented a Washington Post Book World reviewer, and Steven Ratiner, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, thought the book was "an ideal place to start" an introduction to poetry. In 1999, the Kennedys added seventy-five new poems to the collection. Carolyn Phelan of Booklist called the revised version of Knock at a Star "an admirable book," and a Horn Book reviewer considered the introduction to poetry "one of the best."
A departure for Kennedy was his 1983 The Owlstone Crown, juvenile fiction that was his first attempt at the novel. The book took him ten years to write, and as he told CA, it "just may be the least contemptible thing I have done, besides being a father." The book is a mixture of detective novel and sci-fi, "a delightful children's fantasy,"according to Richard Mathews in Fantasy Review, that is "rich with amusing detail and poetic imagery," as Anne Connor noted in School Library Journal. The sequel to The Owlstone Crown, The Eagle as Wide as the World, was released in 1997.
Returning to poetry once again with The Forgetful Wishing Well: Poems for Young People, Kennedy explored more serious themes, such as loss and growing up, as in "Growing Pains": "I take my plastic rocket ship / To bed, now that I'm older. / My wooly bear is packed away, / Why do nights feel colder?" "His poems sing," commented Kathleen D. Whalin in a School Library Journal review of the book. "Kennedy's verse is always unassumingly elegant," noted a Kirkus Reviews writer, and Mary M. Burns, in Horn Book, concluded that "these are poems to delight the ear and stimulate the imagination."
If The Forgetful Wishing Well explored themes other than the silly, Kennedy's three ensuing books dealing with brats are an evocation of the absurd, celebrations of mischievous children told largely in rhymed quatrains and iambic tetrameter couplets. Brats, Fresh Brats, and Drat These Brats! explore the world of rapscallions with startling results: "On a factory tour, Will Gossage, / Watching folks make bratwurst sausage, / Jumped into the meat feet-first. / Brats are bad, but Will's the wurst." Or continuing on the meat theme, there is the impish Sue in Brats who sticks a pig to the ceiling with glue: "Uncle, gawking, spilled his cup. / 'Wow!' he cried. 'Has pork gone up!'" The trio of prankish books contain "irrepressibly rhymed verses," according to Betsy Hearne in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books."Kennedy's humor is sufficiently outrageous to be rib-tickling, rather than frightening," commented Peter Neumeyer in the New York Times Book Review.
In the midst of his "Brats" books, Kennedy explored further comic verse with Ghastlies, Goops, and Pincushions: Nonsense Verse, a sort of brats companion piece of unwanted individuals and crazy antics. The Kite That Braved Old Orchard Beach: Year-round Poems for Young People is similar to The Forgetful Wishing Well in its use of simple language to evoke imagery; it is also less rollicking and more reflective about such themes as family, friends, and growing up. Kennedy also collaborated with his wife again in the 1992 anthology, Talking like the Rain: A First Book of Poems. With the 1993 The Beasts of Bethlehem, nineteen poems portraying animals gathered around the baby Jesus in the stable, Kennedy "crowned his rich career," according to Hearne in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. The verses have the "musicality of carols," noted Hearne, and a School Library Journal reviewer agreed, commenting favorably on Kennedy's "small quiet verses." Kennedy completed another volume of poetry in 2002; Exploding Gravy: Poems to Make You Laugh, was called by a Publishers Weekly critic "a plethory of poetry" that "tickles the funny bone."
In 2000, Kennedy introduced young readers to Olympics for elephants, known as the Elympics. His book Elympics features Trinket the sprinter, slalom expert Tram, and the diver Elijah. "Readers who remember the somtimes biting wit of the Brats books will find Kennedy's humor gentler here,"wrote Phelan in Booklist. Kennedy returned to the Elympics with the story of Elefantina, an elephant who desperately wants to ice skate, in Elefantina's Dream. Elefantina comes from a tropical climate, so in order to learn to skate, she must not only find some skates and a coach, but also create her own rink to practice on. With the help of the ice man (who loans her blocks of ice so she can create a place to skate) and the mouse coach Mozzarella, Elefantina begins to realize her dream. But she has a jealous rival, and she doesn't seem to be able to master the salchow jump, a move she must learn in order to make the team. A reviewer in Kirkus Reviews commented that "individual readers will enjoy the lyrical cadence of the story," and Michael Cart of Booklist commented that children would "enjoy the element of suspense [and] admire Elefantina's determination." Rosalyn Pierini noted, "This story will find an appreciative audience."
Kennedy has never been an ivory tower poet. A veteran of more than two hundred readings in the United States and England, Kennedy has also appeared on radio and television and in grade schools, where he takes his duty seriously even though it is disguised in the form of nonsense verse. "In approaching children with poems in our hands," he once wrote in an article for Horn Book, "I think it helps to begin by recognizing the child as a person with an intellect." Never one to talk down to his audience or shy away from big words, Kennedy is also a champion of meter and rhyme in poetry as well as of analysis. "I believe that the form of a poem is worth noticing and that it will sometimes evade the child's gaze unless it is pointed out," he noted in his Horn Book article. "I'm not just a versifier," Kennedy told CA, adding that his works "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."