Caroline Kennedy: ambassador for poetry(Read article summary)
Caroline Kennedy discusses her love of poetry and "Poems to Learn by Heart," the collection she has edited.
‚ÄúYou‚Äôre a wonderful ambassador for poetry,‚ÄĚ a reporter tells Caroline Kennedy one day earlier this month, as hundreds of people line up outside the Coolidge Corner Theater in Bookline, Mass., waiting to hear Kennedy speak about "Poems to Learn by Heart," the latest collection of poetry for which she has served as editor.
Kennedy‚Äôs eyes grow wide for a moment. Then she graciously accepts the compliment, explaining why she thinks poetry matters, particularly to young readers: ‚ÄúPoetry broadens your horizons and helps kids distinguish what‚Äôs important information and authentic feeling from a lot of the noise and fragmentary sources of information that they get.‚ÄĚ
For Kennedy herself, reading and memorizing poetry began at an early age. ‚ÄúPoetry was something woven into the holidays and into our family life,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúMy grandmother used to love having everyone recite ‚ÄėThe Midnight Ride of Paul Revere‚Äô when we came to see her. She had grown up in Concord [Mass.], so it felt very special to say it with her,‚ÄĚ recalls Kennedy. ‚ÄúOnly my Uncle Teddy learned the entire poem.‚ÄĚ'
The family also exchanged copies of poems on Christmas and birthdays. ‚ÄúPoetry is a wonderful thing to share across the generations,‚ÄĚ notes Kennedy. ‚ÄúThe words and the language that you‚Äôre introduced to when you are young really stay with you and hopefully can give you a sense of a much a larger world that you want to explore.‚ÄĚ
Kennedy‚Äôs mother, Jacqueline, loved poetry as well, and expected hand-written poems from Caroline and her late brother, John, on special occasions. When the siblings felt competitive, they‚Äôd recite the poems by heart. ‚ÄúI learned ‚ÄėThe Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ she remembers proudly.
Her brother, in contrast, once chose the poem ‚ÄúCareless Willie,‚ÄĚ which includes the line ‚ÄúWillie with a thirst for gore, nailed his sister to the door.‚ÄĚ
Those experiences taught Kennedy that poetry has the unique ability to engage children and help them understand feelings and ideas. ‚ÄúAs long as you know the world of words, you can‚Äôt be alone,‚ÄĚ she says.
Poetry reassures during difficult times, as it did for Kennedy after the death of her mother: ‚ÄúPoetry says what I‚Äôm thinking better than I do.‚ÄĚ
The new collection contains many poems that are reassuring, she says. ‚ÄúIf you are in the middle of something unpleasant, you can read them and they will settle your mind and your thoughts.
Unfortunately, many people in the United States haven‚Äôt been exposed to poetry, or to the joys of reading, she says. ‚ÄúWe have a literacy crisis in this country. Fourteen percent of adults can‚Äôt read, and far too many students find it difficult and don‚Äôt enjoy it and feel that school isn‚Äôt really relevant to their lives,‚ÄĚ Kennedy explains. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm hoping that people will give poetry a second chance because I think it really does give you an entry into so many dimensions of life, and of learning.‚ÄĚ
Kennedy‚Äôs belief that poetry empowers was reinforced as she worked with students at DreamYard Prepatory, an arts school in the Bronx. Every couple of weeks for one semester, Kennedy met with four young writers who helped her select work for ‚ÄúPoems to Learn by Heart,‚ÄĚ including some monster and fairy poems. ‚ÄúTheir eyes and ears expanded the range of poems and provided valuable input,‚ÄĚ she says.
Kennedy was so impressed with the students‚Äô expressiveness and passion that she chose the poem ‚ÄúVoices Rising,‚ÄĚ written by the school‚Äôs slam team, for the final volume. The piece demonstrates that young people care about current events and issues, she feels, and that ‚Äúpoetry is a group act, not a solitary act.‚ÄĚ
The book also features a number of war poems, because ‚Äúit‚Äôs good to talk about suffering and loss,‚ÄĚ says Kennedy. ‚ÄúWe need to help kids find their voice so they can advocate for change.‚ÄĚ
Does Kennedy view her work advocating for poetry as a form of service? ‚ÄúNothing is more important than how we raise our children,‚ÄĚ she says with quiet conviction. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a long-term security and moral issue.‚ÄĚ
A love of books was key to her father‚Äôs development, she says. ‚ÄúMy father became a voracious reader, and that developed his sense of patriotism and the importance of courage.‚ÄĚ
As for her mother, when asked how she would feel about ‚ÄúPoems to Learn by Heart,‚ÄĚ Kennedy smiles broadly. ‚ÄúI think she‚Äôd be quite happy. I‚Äôd love to have her as an editor.‚ÄĚ
Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor and The Washington Post.