For Caroline Kennedy's 50th birthday, several of her close friends presented her with poems to mark the occasion. They understood the significance of poetry in her life, how she learned to understand it by looking through volumes, deciphering marks in marginalia, looking for clues to interpret the poems.
The third collection of poems she has selected and shaped into an anthology, "She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems" reflects her passion for the art form and her belief that poems can forge deep and enduring connections between people.
Since then, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has become an ambassador for all forms of poetry, with equal enthusiasm for classic and contemporary poems. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, but determined, Kennedy is a poetry evangelist - a champion of the form's resonance in a noisy world.
"People are intimidated by poetry, but it's perfect for our times," she argued in our conversation. "Short and intense.
"You read a poem, and you feel that you're understood and understand someone else. Poetry deepens that commitment to others."
The poems in her new anthology are not organized chronologically or alphabetically but thematically. The sections seem to order themselves, perhaps reflecting the fluid process of selection and organization that took place over a year.
Kennedy introduces each section, and each has a playful dimension. A great range of emotional terrain is covered here, and some poems are quite funny. In the section called "Breaking Up," Kennedy has included clever poems, such as Dorothy Parker's "Unfortunate Coincidence":
By the Time you swear you're his,
Shivering and Sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
While many poems in this volume are centuries old, they feel quite contemporary. Yes, poems of love, loss, mourning that we so often associate with verse are here. But this collection also reflects Kennedy's quirky style and sensibility.
In the section "Beauty, clothes, and things of this World," several poems explore women's complicated relationships with the idea of beauty. Kennedy writes of her very correct and elegant grandmothers, who carried handbags, even around the house. She is capable of self-deprecating wit, as when she recounts purchasing a hospital-green linen bomber jacket with puffy sleeves and modeling it for her grandmother. The reaction? "'That's lovely, dear. But in my day, we tried to buy things that suited us.'"
Attention to the act of working is unusual in most poetry collections, but Kennedy has found a wide range of poems for this section. Social justice and domestic servitude are important themes, but the pursuit of work is also an element of this chapter.
The last section, "How to live," is Kennedy's favorite.
"When everyday life distracts us, poetry can help us feel centered," she writes. She includes one of her mother's favorite poems, "Ithaka," by Constantine Cavafy, a modern Greek poet who draws from ancient myth and writes of life as a voyage full of adventure and discovery.
Finally, two poems that were the book's origin - "To be of Use," by Marge Piercy, and "Leap Before you Look," by W.H. Auden, remind her that, "There's always more to do and no reason not to do it."
"She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems"
Selected and introduced by Caroline Kennedy
Voice/Hyperion, 352 pages, $24.99
Kennedy's Chicago-area appearances:
Caroline Kennedy will be in conversation with Elizabeth Taylor at a special event Wednesday. This luncheon event has sold out, but look for information on upcoming author talks at tribnation.com/events.
Kennedy also will be signing books at:
- 7 p.m. Tuesday at Borders Books & Music, 1500 16th St., Oak Brook, 630-574-0800.
- 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes and Noble Old Orchard, 55 Old Orchard Center, Skokie, 847-676-2230.