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Caroline Kennedy talks 'Poems to Learn by Heart'

Caroline Kennedy proselytizes for verse during recent visit

By Kevin Nance

8:11 PM EDT, April 26, 2013

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During Caroline Kennedy's childhood, poetry was a family affair. Her father, President John F. Kennedy, had admired Robert Frost enough to give him a prominent place at his inauguration, and her mother, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, had loved poetry since her own childhood, keeping a scrapbook of poems she had copied out by hand.


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At birthdays and holidays, Caroline and her brother, John, were required to pick out a poem, copy and illustrate it, which their mother would add to the scrapbook. Sometimes the children would memorize the poems, which got them extra points with their mom; John particularly loved poems about battles and bravery, such as Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and naughty bits of doggerel, such as "Careless Willie":

Careless Willie with a thirst for gore

Nailed his sister to the door.

Mother cried with humor quaint

"Careful, Willie, don't spoil the paint!"

Not long ago, coming across that Mother's Day offering in the scrapbook — which she now keeps, and has her own children add to — Caroline Kennedy broke into a fit of giggles. "Of course this completely sums up our relationship," she tells a packed audience at a recent book tour stop at North Central College's Pfeiffer Hall in Naperville. "It made me laugh so hard when I found it, because I just couldn't believe he'd gotten away with that."

In "Poems to Learn by Heart," her new anthology of 100 poems for children of all ages, with illustrations by Jon J Muth (with whom she collaborated on an earlier volume, the 2005 best-seller "A Family of Poems"), Kennedy is extending her cherished family tradition by encouraging young readers to memorize and recite the poems in the book. They include poems of identity, family, friendship and love, with a wide chronological range from Ovid and Bible passages to works by contemporary poets such as Rita Dove and Billy Collins.

There are rhymed poems and free-verse poems, "girl" poems and "boy" poems, the latter including Yusef Komunyakaa's "Slam, Dunk, & Hook" and Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat." The poems also vary wildly in terms of thematic weight, from light lyrics about fairies and other magical creatures, such as W.H. Auden's "Song of the Ogres" and Ogden Nash's "The Tale of Custard the Dragon," to far heavier texts about war and atrocity, including Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" (broken into poetic lines by Kennedy herself) and Martin Niemöller's "First They Came for the Jews," with its grim references to the Holocaust.

"Poetry was very much a part of my family life and experience that was passed down to me," Kennedy says over a double-shot cappuccino at the Four Seasons in Chicago the day of the Naperville event. "Poems to Learn By Heart," she says, is part of a trajectory that began with the publication of "The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis" in 2001. "After her death, I felt like people were not focusing on the most important things about her, which were her love of literature and ideas," Kennedy recalls. "That's really what made her who she was, much more than her style or her fashion."

As a child, Jackie Bouvier had spent Wednesday afternoons after school with her grandfather, reading and reciting poetry — an experience echoed by Caroline Kennedy on visits to her grandmother, Rose Kennedy, who would pepper her and her brother with questions about American history and ask them to recite Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride." Caroline couldn't recite the lengthy poem, but her "Uncle Teddy" — the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts — could and often did, in later years showing up at his niece's book signings and offering to regale the crowd with his booming rendition of Revere's midnight ride.

"I found when I went out to talk about poetry that so many people had had that same experience of poetry as part of their family life," she says. "They had shared poems with older relatives, and had them passed down. It was something that had fallen out of fashion, but people remembered it so fondly that I felt it would be nice to bring it back."

Sitting onstage at Pfeiffer Hall, Kennedy pays rapt attention as 15 students — all girls, conspicuously — as they bravely recite poems from the book, most without referring to the texts. (She smiles encouragingly when one little girl forgets her lines and, mortified, is forced to borrow a copy of the anthology to read from.) "I can't believe how well you recited those poems," Kennedy tells the girls when she gets her own moment at the podium. "I can't believe you learned them all by heart."

Memorization, she explains at the hotel, "gives you a chance to know the poem really well. I'm not saying you have to memorize the entire poem — I mean, I'm not checking — but if you do, you have it with you always, and it enriches your whole experience."

So, Ms. Kennedy: You've had your coffee, now it's time for a pop quiz.

Recite, please, a poem — any poem — from memory.

She launches without hesitation into the first poem she ever memorized, by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—

It gives a lovely light.

And so it does.

Of course, not everyone can pick a group of poems, get it published and watch it shoot up the best-seller lists. Almost no one can, in fact, in an era when poetry's profile in the public consciousness is considerably lower than it was in the heyday of Robert Frost. As Kennedy is quick to point out, the art form is making something of a comeback among the young, in communal forms such as poetry slams and open-mic readings, and as part of the Poetry Out Loud program, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, in which some 400,000 American students memorize and recite poems competitively. (The night after Kennedy's Naperville event, local participants in Poetry Out Loud performed for her at a second book tour stop in Highland Park.)

Still, it's unlikely that thousands of people and dozens of news photographers and TV cameras would show up, as they did in Naperville and other stops on her tour, if it weren't for her famous name and her place in one of the most storied families in American history.

"The success of these books has to do with poetry, of course, but also with history — her history, our history — and both of those things are there to be preserved," says Muth, 53, whose beautiful watercolor paintings illustrate the book, in a phone interview. "She's really my generation's Kennedy, and she deserves kudos for using that quality to bring poetry to the attention of a larger audience. She really believes in poetry, which is quite a nice thing to be around."

Kennedy's belief in poetry, it turns out, is not just a matter of beloved family history. It's also an outgrowth of her work over the last decade with the high school students participating in DreamYard, an after-school poetry workshop in the Bronx, New York City's poorest borough. In the program, teenagers read, write and recite their own poems, often tackling daunting topics such as poverty and violence. Watching them, Kennedy has seen close up the potentially transformative power of poetry.

"I think we have a crisis with literacy in this country, and I think our job as parents, as adults, as a community is to surround kids with words and ideas that can spark their imaginations and get them learning and reading and expressing themselves and finding their own voice," she says. "In the Bronx, I've been so impressed by these kids and their passion, the topics and the length of the poems they could perform. Kids — especially kids from different cultural backgrounds — really learn to listen to each other when they're performing or reciting a poem they've written.

"I've seen teachers bring a classroom together with poetry, and when the kids get older and start writing their own poems, they write about really tough issues going on in their lives and their families. I think writing and performing these poems gives them a sense that they are somebody, somebody with a voice.

"It happens most dramatically with kids who are really shy. Not every shy kid will find his or her voice through poetry, but many do, because these kids I work with have all told me that. It's really given them a whole new community of people interested in the same things they are, and it made them want to go on and read and learn more."

As part of one workshop project, for example, the students discovered that the rate of HIV/AIDS in the Bronx was as high as that in Africa. In response, they partnered with a local hospital and held an open-mic poetry slam, offering HIV testing to all who attended.

"Poetry makes them realize," Kennedy says, "that they can use language to stand up for themselves."

When it was time to pick the poems for the new anthology, Kennedy asked several of the workshop participants to help in the selection process.

"As a result, there are more funny poems in here, and more poems about monsters and fairies and elves, than I probably would have thought at first," she says with a smile. "And they liked poems about friendship, and funny poems about school. But there are also some very serious poems in the book, including a group poem they wrote themselves that's very political, very strong."

That poem is "Voices Rising," by five poets from the DreamYard Prep Slam Team, which takes up a four-page spread in the anthology. It angrily laments, among other things, police brutality, the Black Friday Massacre, and the plight of hungry children around the world whose struggles are "taken out of the newspaper / and replaced by articles reporting A-Rod's scandal with steroids. / By celebrity weight gains and break-ups." "Listen," the poem demands,

Can you spare me your eardrum?

Keep your change.

I don't want your money.

Just your heart.

It's hard to know, of course, whether the poets' plea will be answered. Poetry is a tough sell in this world of, yes, A-Rod and tabloid stories about celebrity weight gain. Even Caroline Kennedy must realize that she's swimming upstream?

"That's true," she says. "But, you know" — and here, for once, her voice takes on that famous Kennedy steel — "it's easy to swim downstream."

Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. 

"Poems to Learn by Heart"

Selected by Caroline Kennedy, with paintings by Jon J Muth, Disney/Hyperion Books, 192 pages, $19.99