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Peeping Tom's Cabin: Comic Verse, 1928-2008 by X.J. Kennedy

It’s hard to find fault with X.J. Kennedy. Winner of multiple prestigious awards, including the Guggenheim, the always-metrical Kennedy is widely credited for helping revitalize appreciation of form. His well-loved children’s anthologies, bestselling textbook, and highly regarded teaching have done much to secure a place for poetry in future generations.

And he’s no fuddy-duddy. The most distinctive of the Kennedy signatures is his penchant for irreverent humor—a “comic verse,” as he calls it, which crosses and redraws the boundaries between light verse and “serious” poetry. To Kennedy’s lively infusions of mirth, say many, poetry owes a survivor’s debt.

Perhaps it is because Kennedy has earned such an aggressively favorable reputation that his latest collection, Peeping Tom’s Cabin, disappoints. While the usual Kennedy suspects—rhyme-and-meter mastery; a playful, often sardonic personality—thrive throughout, Cabin suffers from lethargy of theme.

In his “sort of an introduction” to this volume, Kennedy offers ideas on the nature of comic verse: “Like hens that gulp iron nails, some poems have plenty of weight rattling around in them; yet, light on their feet, they…turn a backflip, and make us laugh.” This dual-edged quality has been noted—and treasured—in most of Kennedy’s work to date. His fanciful poems usually skate across a dark-tinged pond, making Kennedy’s oeuvre as much a pleasure to read as that of great satirists like Swift and Twain.

Cabin, however, with rare exceptions, demands laughter without conscience. Some things simply aren’t funny, yet Kennedy sends them up like carnival balloons, expecting the modern reader to find humor in such subjects as: pedophilia (“Assorted Pentastiches,” “Picasso”); bestiality (“Versatility”); public genital exposure (“The Self Exposed”); vandalism targeted to child victims (“Ghastly Brats,” “Roscoe in the petting zoo”); and the murder of women, among others. Cabin’s humor, or suggested humor, is dubious at best—at worst, disturbing, as in this rather slanderous hypothetical on Shakespeare, “The Elizabethan Stage”:

Oh, the Globe lacked for lightin’ and scrimmin’,

Pretty boys in wigs played all the women,

And perhaps Willie Shakes

Often haunted the jakes

For a morsel of anal persimmon.

Leaving aside the tone of voyeuristic glee inherent in such light treatments, one remains hard-pressed to see any value, humorous or otherwise, in having read them. Throw in Cabin’s habit of showcasing various ethnic stereotypes, and the book devolves into a series of mean-spirited caricatures. Choices of words—and choices of subject—are frequently uninspired: Kennedy’s take on Sylvia Plath, for instance, echoes “Daddy,” the most obvious, most typecast Plath poem—while another poem tries vainly to amuse with a worn-out groaner punchline: “mother Fuggers.”

As a model of metrical verse, Cabin rewards handsomely. Kennedy’s rhythmic rhymes display an enviable technical prowess, one from which any student of poetry could well learn. For a collection described as “comic verse,” however, Cabin comes off more sneering than comic, more “light” than enlightening—and does unfortunate sabotage to the already embattled genre of light verse.