Poem Sampler

An Xceptional and Xuberant Poet

Conjuring dragons who battle bullies and teachers who write on blackbirds, X.J. Kennedy fills his poems with dexterous wordplay and downright malarkey.
When the Poetry Foundation named me the first Children’s Poet Laureate, I was delighted and astounded. I’d never expected anything like this. I was delighted because of the recognition for my work and astounded because there are so many other fine poets writing for children today.

Once the news sank in, I wanted to find a way to share these poets and their poems with everyone. Every month during my tenure, I’ll select a poet whose work I admire and enjoy. I’ll tell you a bit about them, feature several of their poems, and list some of their books. I expect that I’ll enjoy this, and hope you do too. –Jack Prelutsky

X.J. Kennedy is the only poet I know who made up his own name. Well, at least part of it. When Kennedy was born, his parents named him Joseph, but he didn’t want to be another Joseph Kennedy, so he added an “X” in front and initialized his first name. He assures me the “X” doesn’t stand for anything. I’ve thought it could stand for many things, such as “Xceptional,” “Xuberant,” or “Xpressive.”

An extremely versatile poet, X.J. writes serious as well as whimsical poetry, is comfortable using experimental as well as traditional poetic forms, and writes prolifically for both children and adults. He’s also written textbooks, notably An Introduction to Poetry, a best-selling college textbook, and compiled a number of poetry anthologies for children.

X.J. is a master of wordplay and has written many poems I wish I’d thought of. He once said, “I like poems where you don’t really know whether to laugh or cry when you read them.” I like that quote a lot. He obviously loves and respects his audience and is never condescending.

X.J. was born in 1929 in Dover, New Jersey. He grew up there and, after graduating from high school, attended Seton Hall and Columbia University. He served for four years as a journalist in the U.S. Navy and later studied in France at the Sorbonne. He and his wife, Dorothy, live in Lexington, Massachusetts. They have five grown children and half a dozen grandchildren. In 2000, X.J. won the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.

* * *

These two poems by X.J. Kennedy are from his collected works, Exploding Gravy: Poems to Make You Laugh (Little, Brown, 2002).

My Dragon
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 million years
Inside his boiling belly.

* * * * * *

Mixed-up School
We have a crazy mixed-up school.
Our teacher Mrs. Cheetah
Makes us talk backwards. Nicer cat
You wouldn’t want to meet a.

To start the day we eat our lunch,
Then do some heavy dome-work.
The boys’ and girls’ rooms go to us,
The hamster marks our homework.

At recess time we race inside
To don our diving goggles,
Play pin-the-donkey-on-the tail,
Ball-foot or ap-for-bobbles.

Old Cheetah with a chunk of chalk
Writes right across two blackbirds,
And when she says, “Go home!” we walk
The whole way barefoot backwards.

X.J. Kennedy describes a variety of creatures in his book Did Adam Name the Vinegarroon? (David R. Godine, 1982). This wide-ranging alphabet bestiary begins with Archeopteryx, includes the common Fly, and ends with the ZZZZZZ of the bee. (You’ll have to take a look at the book to see what X.J. features for the letter “X.”) I happen to be fond of the poem “Hippogriff.” (A hippogriff is a fiercely fantastic mythological creature.)

To look at this fictitious steed
You’d think some mixed-up farmer
Had crossed an eagle with a horse.
It carries knights in armor
Through cloud fields at terrific speed.
I wish the Hippogriff
Would take me for a ride. Of course
It’s not real.
But oh, if . . .!

* * *

What I Like About These Poems

“My Dragon” — This is not a poem expressing what I might call finer feelings. It’s a tough little poem in which a tough little kid is expressing some hard-minded thoughts. I imagine this is the kind of poem someone who has just been picked on would like to shoot back as a retort. The words are those used by an average eight-year-old (“So if you tell me I’m a dope / Or call my muscles jelly”). This is poetry closest to my own sensibilities: plain language, written as spoken.

“Mixed-up School” — No need to pick this poem apart—just go ahead and have fun with it. It’s a delightful puzzle crammed full of exuberant wordplay: reversed sentences (“Nicer cat / You wouldn’t want to meet a.”), spoonerisms (“ap-for-bobbles”), malapropisms (“blackbirds” instead of blackboards), homonyms (“Writes right...”), and utter silliness. I detected at least 10 different uses of wordplay. How many can you find?

“Hippogriff” — This ancient mythological creature is a subset of the “species” griffin. Whereas the typical griffin’s hindquarters are made of lionlike legs and tail, the hippogriff’s are more like a horse’s. The poem appears to be a straightforward description of the creature and what it does, but if you examine the rhyme scheme, you will find some intricate footwork that nails the point of the poem:

Last word in each line Rhyme pattern
steed a
farmer b
horse c
armor b
speed a
Hippogriff d
course c
real non-rhyming
if d

The only word that doesn’t rhyme is “real.” By inserting a non-rhyming word to make a critical point, the word “real” stands out, and you take notice. So the lines

I wish the Hippogriff
Would take me for a ride. Of course
It’s not real.

bring you back down from the clouds to earth. Despite all the details about the hippogriff, the creature is still only a fantasy. But, the fantasy lingers in a most exquisite way in the last line:

But oh, if...!

The rhyming of “Hippogriff” with the word “if” is a masterstroke.

Originally Published: October 1st, 2007

Jack Prelutsky is a creator of inventive poems for children and adults alike. He served as the Poetry Foundation’s Children’s Poet Laureate from 2006 to 2008. Prelutsky grew up in the Bronx, and when he was young he studied classical music; though he gave up pursuing a career as an...

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  1. October 16, 2007
     X. J. Kennedy

    My profound thanks to Jack Prelutsky for his generous article about my kidstuff. It's a rare treat to have my work recognized knowingly by a guy who himself is a master of rhythm and rhyme.

  2. November 12, 2007

    X. J. Kennedy is one of my all time favorite poets. His book Knock at a Star got me going in the world of poetry -- I now own hundreds of poetry books which I love to read -- but X. J. holds a special place in my heart for introducing me to the world of poetry.

    When X. J. came to Knoxville, TN for a reading, my son and I went to hear him for ourselves. He was rollicking, musical, funny, bawdy, gracious, tender and tough. and above all a great showman. I'll never think of poetry readings the same way again. The usual ostentatious, somber and frankly boring affair that people imagine when they think of the term poetry reading, has been laid to rest by X. J. If a 43 year old and a 13 year old can sit the whole evening transfixed listening to poetry come alive out of a somewhat rumpled, elderly professor of poetry wearing a suit it looks like he bought at J. C. Penney, you know the man has found the magic of poetry and made it live again.

    Kudos to Jack Prelutsky for honoring X. J.

    P.S. X. J. is also a terrific amateur artist. His drawing with his signature inside the book of his poems that my son asked him to sign is hysterical.

  3. May 21, 2008
     Peter Ward

    X.J. Kennedy is just fantastic. He was generous enough to do an interview with me recently about his work and thoughts on poetry. A downloadable .mp3 recording of the interview is at http://lmlonline.org/AudBook.h...

  4. June 5, 2008

    In 1966, my sister then working at Little Brown, had Kennedy autograph "Nude Descending a Staircase," and gifted it to me. I loved especially the title poem, and have had a Duchamp print nearby in every household since.

    Another favorite from that collection is "Lewis Carroll," which in my youth I'd sometimes vent at parties (with impure intent). But now, "In a Prominent Bar..." I find he's edited several subtle lines; in the '60s he fearlessly "swooped little girls," but now he mysteriously "scooped Liddell girls." And where formerly he would address one "My dear" he now makes it plural (or general) "My dears."

    Has Kennedy ever offered comment or annotation on such changes?

  5. March 31, 2009


  6. March 31, 2009