“You’re a wonderful ambassador for poetry,” 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’s eyes grow wide for a moment. Then she graciously accepts the compliment, explaining why she thinks poetry matters, particularly to young readers: “Poetry broadens your horizons and helps kids distinguish what’s important information and authentic feeling from a lot of the noise and fragmentary sources of information that they get.”
For Kennedy herself, reading and memorizing poetry began at an early age. “Poetry was something woven into the holidays and into our family life,” she says. “My grandmother used to love having everyone recite ‘The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere’ when we came to see her. She had grown up in Concord [Mass.], so it felt very special to say it with her,” recalls Kennedy. “Only my Uncle Teddy learned the entire poem.”'
The family also exchanged copies of poems on Christmas and birthdays. “Poetry is a wonderful thing to share across the generations,” notes Kennedy. “The words and the language that you’re 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.”
Kennedy’s 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’d recite the poems by heart. “I learned ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ ” she remembers proudly.
Her brother, in contrast, once chose the poem “Careless Willie,” which includes the line “Willie with a thirst for gore, nailed his sister to the door.”
Those experiences taught Kennedy that poetry has the unique ability to engage children and help them understand feelings and ideas. “As long as you know the world of words, you can’t be alone,” she says.
Poetry reassures during difficult times, as it did for Kennedy after the death of her mother: “Poetry says what I’m thinking better than I do.”
The new collection contains many poems that are reassuring, she says. “If 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’t been exposed to poetry, or to the joys of reading, she says. “We have a literacy crisis in this country. Fourteen percent of adults can’t read, and far too many students find it difficult and don’t enjoy it and feel that school isn’t really relevant to their lives,” Kennedy explains. “I’m 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.”
Kennedy’s 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 “Poems to Learn by Heart,” including some monster and fairy poems. “Their eyes and ears expanded the range of poems and provided valuable input,” she says.
Kennedy was so impressed with the students’ expressiveness and passion that she chose the poem “Voices Rising,” written by the school’s slam team, for the final volume. The piece demonstrates that young people care about current events and issues, she feels, and that “poetry is a group act, not a solitary act.”
The book also features a number of war poems, because “it’s good to talk about suffering and loss,” says Kennedy. “We need to help kids find their voice so they can advocate for change.”
Does Kennedy view her work advocating for poetry as a form of service? “Nothing is more important than how we raise our children,” she says with quiet conviction. “It’s a long-term security and moral issue.”
A love of books was key to her father’s development, she says. “My father became a voracious reader, and that developed his sense of patriotism and the importance of courage.”
As for her mother, when asked how she would feel about “Poems to Learn by Heart,” Kennedy smiles broadly. “I think she’d be quite happy. I’d love to have her as an editor.”
Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor and The Washington Post.