Caroline Kennedy

Caroline Kennedy (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune / April 2, 2013)

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