THE LORDS OF MISRULE

X. J. Kennedy, Author
X. J. Kennedy, Author . Johns Hopkins Univ. $14.95 (112p) ISBN 978-0-8018-7168-9
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New England's master of light verse returns to familiarly sardonic territory in this, his seventh collection, which mixes dry wit and restrained verse-narrative with poems on surprisingly serious subjects. Among the latter: a mentally ill failed opera singer who roams a New Jersey town; the "crappy days" of 1950s patriarchy (and the aging men who often look back to them); and a "Ballad of [Constance] Fenimore Woolson and Henry James," describing the 19th century writers' Platonic romance (which James encouraged, then rejected) in the all-American rhythms of "Frankie and Johnny." Kennedy even closes the sometimes-somber volume with a clipped and saddened poem about September 11 (entitled "Sept. 12, 2002"). Devotees of the feuilletons and commentaries from which Kennedy made his name will certainly appreciate the volume's "Invocation," in which "sweet Meter" and "strict-lipped Stanza" "confine jubilation/ To tolerable order"; meter and stanza also guide Kennedy's tribute to Allen Ginsberg, in many ways Kennedy's polar opposite, whose "Glee and sweetness, freaky light" give the volume its name. Though less original (and less often laugh-out-loud funny) than its clear precedents in the midcentury poetry of George Starbuck or John Updike, Kennedy's work remains cultured, likable and witty. (Dec.)

Forecast:Despite a shelf of awards for his own poetry (the Lamont Prize for 1961's Nude Descending a Staircase, the Los Angeles Times Prize for 1985's Cross Ties) Kennedy's reputation still rests on his textbooks, including An Introduction to Poetry,co-written with new NEA president Dana Gioia. Kennedy's associations with New Formalism in general, and Gioia in particular, should bring in seasoned admirers.

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