Caroline Kennedy was in Los Angeles recently as part of her eight-city tour for Poems to Learn by Heart, illustrated by Jon J Muth (Disney-Hyperion), her fourth poetry anthology and one she calls a kind of companion piece to 2005’s A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children. “But Poems to Learn by Heart is different in that it’s for slightly older readers, although there’s a progression from simpler to more complicated or longer poems,” Kennedy told PW. “There are a lot of non-rhyming poems, but more of the traditional old chestnuts as well.” Since its release last month, Poems to Learn has sold nearly 21,000 copies at outlets that report to Nielsen BookScan.
Kennedy was aware that many people bought A Family of Poems for their daughters, so she tried for a more diverse selection for the new collection. She first consulted her home library, which includes “a few hundred” poetry books, many of which belonged to her mother. They were the primary source material for the new book, but she also consulted the public library stacks and took suggestions from friends. Another important resource: Kennedy has been involved with the poetry program at DreamYard Prep in the Bronx for many years, working with young poets. “These kids helped me with the book, too,” she said. “They would come down every couple of weeks to the publisher’s office and we would talk about poems and read poems. So this made it a much more fun and dynamic process for me.”
Her conversation with PW ranged over several poetry-related topics, including the Beats. “That’s a group and a genre I’ve had the least exposure to," she said. "But I did go to see Patti Smith read Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. It was so incredible. She performed it, and it was like music, the breathing and the tone. The whole thing came to life. Once again, it shows how poems are meant to be read aloud.”
Working on her poetry anthologies, too, has introduced Kennedy – who was brought up on traditional poetry – to new poets. ”I’ve gotten to know living, breathing poets doing these books, like Elizabeth Alexander and Sharon Olds," she said. "I went down to San Antonio to visit Naomi Shihab Nye’s literacy group. It’s been really great.”
Kennedy is delighted by the renaissance of poetry among young people, and believes it can be key to getting reluctant readers interested in literature. “I think we need to come at kids from all different angles," she said. "So many kids are just turned off by reading. This is part of the literacy crisis in this country. If you can make reading dynamic and fun, and surround kids with this world of curiosity and imagination, some of them will get interested and pursue it.”
Busy though she's been promoting her new book, it's far from her only project. This November marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Kennedy’s father, and she has been supervising the publication of two books done in association with the Kennedy Library. And recently, rumors begun circulating that Kennedy will become the next ambassador to Japan. When asked if a future poetry anthology might include haiku she laughed and said, “We’ll have to see. Maybe I’ll have to go do research. Original research.”