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;