Fighting Words

An evening of Poetry with Jack Kendrick, a poet, playwright, boxer, and one-time habitué of Viennese coffee houses

His charm offensive had hit home in both senses long before Jack Kendrick actually touched base with friends and fans in Vienna: He had returned home of the 1980s once again, his favorite European city after Stockholm, to read from his Selected Poetry (2008).  He had just hit a literary home run with his new volume on life in Lappland, the Swedish/English Another North, that Robert Redford had called “most evocative.”

Jack Kendrick, is a forever youthful poet/playwright and one time professional boxer from Lake Placid, NY, whose trail has wandered in and out of Vienna over many years. Based here from 19XX to 19YY, he became a figure of the local theatre scene; German translations of his plays Third-Class Carriage and When the Wine Is Cold have been performed here at the Kleines Theater im Konzerthaus – two plays of six, for which he won the Edinburgh and Dublin Festival Awards decades ago. That was long before he had gone to the Rome and Tokyo Olympics as a welter-weight boxer (no prize there, as he grudgingly concedes).

“An outstanding Athlete’s notable mastery of both Arts,” wrote Irish American novelist J. P. Donleavy (The Ginger Man).

Some of us in the audience in late November had set aside the date of Jack’s “homecoming” not only for artistic reasons, but also because as former colleagues, we enjoyed reliving the fascination with Jack’s rather unorthodox approaches to teaching English to many a bewildered Austrian. All these many years we have been quoting his literary gems, juicy idioms, or own trademark witticisms.

For the poetry reading on that chilly Autumn evening, the scene was the cozy Papageno Hotel on Wiedner Hauptstraße, a stone´s throw from the Staatsoper. It was there that proprietor Peter Weiss, also a contestant in Rome and Tokyo and Jack´s friend for many years, had brought together many devotees of Jack´s tender punch and powerful soul. Lest you be overly surprised by our “dual-face” artist/fighter, one of Vienna’s leading opera singers, tenor Kurt Edelhagen, was a friend and admirer of heavy-weight world champion Gene Tunney…

As friends and assorted hotel guests were filing into the acoustically perfect breakfast room, Carl Kaye, leader of the Country&Western group Route 66, was warming up, to accompany his onld crony on the guitar. They had performed together in Vienna many times over the years.

Jack’s new collection reads like a travel log of his life, with chapters about “The Athlete”, “African Lyrics”, “Dark Ireland”, “The Klara Songs of Hungary”, “Another North”, “The Swedish Heart”, “The Europe Cycle”. As he started to read, Jack the Champ´s voice warbled and cracked a couple of times under the emotional strain, perhaps, of having come home again.

He began with a poem he had just written the night before at the Musikverein – I know because I sat right next to him. The music (Sibelius, among others) had inspired him so much, he explained, that he had to keep drawing the verbal portraits of the various concertgoers; that instead of soaking up the music, he had to yield to his poetic inspiration. Gradually sinking away from my side, he was absorbed in setting to poetry the glistening bald heads and assorted hairdos bobbing up and down in front of us. Basically free verse, as behooves a fairly traditional present-day poet.

As Kendrick read, guitarist Carl Kaye was sailing along on this humorous mood-setting poem, whipping up a froth of sea foam with his forceful picking and plucking. From now on they would take turns.

Forever out to catch fascinating characters and paint them in local color, Jack next introduced us to the elegant charms of a mysterious lady he had seen walking into a Viennese café dozens of times, always dressed to the gills, always sporting a long cigarette-holder, always heading for the same table, and always ordering the same cup of melange. She had always appeared by herself, and so the poem’s halting rhythm and lack of rhyme scheme were quite in keeping with its mood.

Time for requests! Those of us who have known Jack for some time, usually want him to recite either from his Austrian poems (most set at weddings and funerals) or the poem that best depicts his poet/boxer nature, I Held a Black Child (from African Lyrics). The “Africans” among us won, and I could hear him, visibly relaxed and thoroughly enjoying it by now, recite this black&white scene set in a Kenyan outdoor boxing ring. An elaborate three-stanza canvas painted in shades of dark&light, it resonates with such imagery as,

“we both (the African baby, that is) looked at Mount

Kilimanjaro, and a White portion of God’s

Snow Eye, looked at a Black Child and a Whited Man…”

Carl now took over, prolonging the joyful yet somber mood with this haunting tenor voice, putting Jack into Irish enough a mood to intone “Danny Boy”, a sure winner in Vienna. A couple of more upbeat songs, and the evening ended. Too short for some, but just right for Jack, eager to relax and reminisce and rejoice. Besides, Jack´s volumes were piled up on one side and Carl´s five CDs on the other. After all, one can´t live on verse and melody alone.

As the guests were slowly leaving, one was overheard asking him whether the name Kendrick was Irish.

“Is the Pope Catholic?” he replied with s smile. Could this be part of his success? Thought food anyway to take along for some of us: Isn’t half of “English” literature Irish, just as half of “German” literature is really Austrian?

As far as we know, Jack can’t help but come back for more. As one of his reviewers put it so aptly, “Jack Kendrick is a Man who lives his Themes: Where he’s coming from, is where he’s been.”


See the following page for examples of Jack Kendrick’s poetry, written while in Vienna

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