Caroline Kennedy 'Walks' Through Favorite Poems

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Caroline Kennedy also edited a collection of poetry for children, A Family Of Poems.

Caroline Kennedy also edited a collection of poetry for children, A Family Of Poems. Courtesy of the publisher hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the publisher

In She Walks In Beauty, Caroline Kennedy collects poems that have inspired her at various milestones, as a daughter, a woman and a wife. She groups the poems into several categories, including falling in love, breaking up, marriage, work, death, and growing up and growing old. "I think those are times of transition in life," Kennedy tells NPR's Neal Conan.

Growing up and growing old is especially important to her at this moment. Her own children are growing into adulthood right now, and thanks to her recently celebrated 53rd birthday, she's thought a lot about growing old.

"There's so much to think about when you're becoming an adult, and there's so many great poems about that apprehension and excitement," she says. And now that she and her friends are middle aged, she's seen how this time in her life parallels that period. Growing old, she says, is also "a time of reflection and discussion and excitement, in a way, about what's to come."

Cover of 'She Walks In Beauty'
She Walks In Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems
By Caroline Kennedy
Hardcover, 352 pages
List price: $24.99

Kennedy's mother, Jacqueline, was instrumental in instilling in Caroline a love of poetry. Every holiday, Caroline and her brother, Jack Jr., were asked to present a poem as a "gift" to the family. "She [still] had to buy us presents," Kennedy clarifies with a laugh. "I just want to make clear that this was a one-way deal." But Jacqueline really wanted the children to select poems they liked as their presents to her. "I think it was a wonderful way of opening up an exploration and discovery that was completely self-motivated, no homework, no pressure."

She saved the poems her children copied down for her in a scrapbook, which Caroline now has. "I think it really gave both of us a confidence that we could understand poetry, that there was nothing really to be afraid of," she says. It's a family tradition she has carried on with her own family.

As her children entered their teenage years, it got a little harder to continue the tradition. So now they make her playlists for her iPod, but they also "know that if they give a poem, that's just such a home run that they're happy to throw us a bone."

Elizabeth Alexander's work appears several times in the collection. Alexander tells Kennedy and Conan that she never thinks about how her poems will affect her readers. It "corrupts the process of writing the poem," she says, "which after all, is a process of going very deeply within to terrain that even we don't know what it's going to turn up when we go excavating." Then, she says, audiences find "what they will" in it.

Crossroads in life are especially rich territory for poets to mine, says Alexander. Those moments "call for distilled language with which to mark those moments, with which to remember."

Alexander echoes the Kennedys' call not to fear poetry. "Everywhere," she says, "people are finding that to have heightened language that they can hold on to in the middle of their lives is something profoundly human, and ancient, actually." Sometimes the best words are simple words, but poets put them into "a small jewel" for readers.

Poems can even make ordinary moments seem extraordinary, adds Kennedy. "They bring emotion and they bring history and they bring wisdom or insight or clarity," says Kennedy, "and really can transform our daily life."

Excerpt: 'She Walks In Beauty'

Cover of 'She Walks In Beauty'
She Walks In Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems
By Caroline Kennedy
Hardcover, 352 pages
List price: $24.99

This book began around the time I turned fifty. Like my friends who had been there before me, I dreaded it for months, and was relieved when it was over and life seemed much the same as before. One of the nicest things that happened was that three friends sent me poems to mark the occasion. One poem was about love, one helped me cope with loss, and the third spoke to ways of being. I kept them and passed them on to others when the time seemed right. To me, that's the gift of poetry — it shapes an endless conversation about the most important things in life.

Creating an anthology of poems centered around the stages of a woman's life still seems like an unlikely project to me. I have shied away from the personal genre of literature, and never thought that growing old would be something I would do. Perhaps that's because, in my family, my cousins and I still refer to our parents' generation as "the grown-ups," although most of us are in our fifties. But there seemed to be something profoundly different about hitting the middle-age mark — a sense of accomplishment, an emotional reckoning, and a feeling of renewed possibility about the future. All that, and a tiny terror of sliding down the hill into a crumpled heap of old age. Working on this book reminded me that the personal is universal, being a woman is a profound part of who I am, and sharing experiences and emotions is the best way we can help ourselves and others.

Approaching middle age made me appreciate my deep connection to the women I have grown up with, worked with, and whose children have grown up with mine. We have learned what is important, we can look back as well as forward, and we have the chance to weave the choices we have already made into the changes we want to bring into our lives. Reading poems can help bring clarity and insight to emotions that can be confusing or contradictory.

Women have always been at the center of poetry — throughout history we have been its inspiration, and more recently, women are the authors of the most profound poetry of our time. One of the oldest known poets in the world is a woman — Sappho — and her fragments of verse are as emotionally piercing today as the work of many modern writers. The love poetry of medieval troubadours, Renaissance playwrights, and Romantic poets (almost exclusively men) celebrated female beauty and mystery; conquest, heartbreak, and desire. In the twentieth century, women poets gave voice to the pain and joy, relationships and loneliness, the work and the life of women. In today's world, as women struggle to balance work and family, to be good mothers and friends, to care for our children and our parents, poetry can help us accept our limitations, and inspire us to overcome them. In a world where language is too often used to manipulate, poems can help us find our authentic voice.

The book is divided into sections that seem broad enough to encompass the milestones in a woman's life — "Falling in Love," "Breaking Up," "Marriage," "Motherhood," "Death and Grief" — but they are intended as helpful, if arbitrary, dividers. Other sections are about some of the things that make us happy, like "Friendship" or "Beauty." My favorite section is the one titled "How to Live." It includes the poems that started this book, and many others, each containing wisdom that has helped me on my own journey.

Collecting these poems reminded me that when I was younger, I thought my task was to forge ahead and succeed as an individual. But growing older has helped me realize that our success lies in our relationships — with the family we are born into, the friends we make, the people we fall in love with, and the children we have. Sometimes we struggle, sometimes we adapt, and at other times we set a course for others to follow. We are all leaders and followers in our lives. We are constantly learning from and teaching one another. We learn, too, that the most important work is not done by those who seem the most important, but by those who care the most.

Women have always been the weavers of the world, literally and figuratively. We weave people together, we weave the experiences of life into patterns, and we weave our stories into words. Poetry has been one of the ways we do this. Poems distill our deepest emotions into a very few words — words that we can remember, carry with us, and share with others as we talk and weave the cloth of life.

Excerpted from She Walks In Beauty by Caroline Kennedy. Copyright 2011, Caroline Kennedy. Published by Hyperion. All Rights Reserved.

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A Woman's Journey Through Poems

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