Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me” may be the shortest poem on the Countdown: eight lines, and short lines, at that. The three-word title of the poem pretty much sums up the plot. What more do we learn? That Jenny was sitting before the kiss, and jumped up to accomplish it. That the speaker is otherwise fairly defeated by life. That “Time,” personified, keeps a “list,” and loves to put good things down on it. I don’t think this is one of those “My Favorites” lists, though. It think it’s one of those lists with the theme “I’m going to see that you suffer.”
Why is this a good poem at all, let alone the 41st-greatest poem in the contemporary English language? One of the values that I perceive in so many of these Countdown poems is compression. Huge issues, huge emotions, huge aspects of existence are condensed by great poets into the fewest possible words. Sometimes this results in poetry both compressed and oblique, poetry that talks around feelings too powerful to meet head-on. But sometimes, as in “Jenny Kissed Me,” we see the fullest possible lyric payoff in as direct a manner as possible, with the most straightforward expression.
And it’s the expression of an overwhelming lyric emotion: desire. Or rather, joy at being desired. The speaker of the poem scarcely says what he feels about Jenny. (He doesn’t even identify his own gender, though the poet was male.) But there is one thing that we can’t deny: Jenny kissed him.
And she jumped from a chair to do so. The wording here is so economical, so unexpected, and yet so precisely emotional. I can’t think of another phrasing that would be so inevitable and unmistakable. It conveys a visual image, and also a whole story and backstory in exquisite miniature. Jenny jumps; the excitement of rising to the kiss sends her entire body into motion. No thought is involved, and perhaps the thoughts in the case were opposite ones. I’m going to sit here calmly and shake his hand when he gets in. No, the hell with that.
“Put that in.” If Time is making up an extra-careful list of good things he gets to take away from us, Jenny’s kiss is among the brightest. And the poem confronts the ravages of time by the simplest method possible. Yes, everything will be taken away from us. But it has already been. By writing the good things on his list, Time destroys them. But he also makes an indelible record of them. Poetry is the most ineffaceable way of preserving that record.