NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
In a new book, Caroline Kennedy argues that women have always been at the center of poetry throughout history. We have been its inspiration, she wrote, and more recently, women are the authors of the most profound poetry of our time.
Poetry has always been a part of her life. It formed part of the special bond she shared with her mother and led her to put together a book of her mother's best-loved poems back in 2005. Now she's done the same for herself, with a collection of poems that helped her navigate the rocky shoals and sunlit lagoons of life.
If there was a poem that meant something important at a critical moment in your life, give us a call. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, a primer on the unrest in Syria and the difficult challenges that it presents for the United States. But first, Caroline Kennedy joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Her new book is called "She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems."
And Caroline Kennedy, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. CAROLINE KENNEDY (Author, "She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems"): Thanks, it's great to be here.
CONAN: And you select sets of poems for various waypoints along that journey: falling in love, breaking up, marriage, work, death and grief - and another that you say in your introduction provided both perspective and motivation for this book: growing up and growing old.
Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah. I mean, I think those are times of transition in life, and in some ways, they share certain similarities. Nobody really wants to isolate the fact of growing old, but I think when you compare the bookends of adulthood, it's really an interesting comparison. And there's so much to think about when you're becoming an adult, and there are so many poems about that, that sort of apprehension and excitement.
And having my own children entering that stage I think brought back so many memories for me, and then myself having just recently turned 50, I think everyone I knew my age - who I grew up with and entered adolescence with - was also starting to now enter middle age.
And so it was another time of reflection and discussion and excitement, in a way, about what's to come. So I think those were sort of two of the underlying themes of that section.
CONAN: I'm not sure we're going to get to all of your categories, but we hope to read a poem from as many of each as we could. And I wanted to read this one. This is from - by Lucille Clifton in that same category, growing up and growing old. I guess we lost Lucille Clifton just a year ago. This is called "To My Last Period."
Well, girl, goodbye, after 38 years, 38 years and you never arrived, splendid in your red dress without trouble for me somewhere, somehow.
Now it's done, and I feel just like the grandmothers who, after the hussy has gone, sit holding her photograph and sighing: Wasn't she beautiful? Wasn't she beautiful?
Why did you pick that one?
Ms. KENNEDY: I don't know. I can't believe you just read that aloud.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KENNEDY: Because, obviously, when you're, you know, becoming adolescent and then, you know, becoming older, middle-aged, that's a huge defining moment in both of those. And so it seemed like it would be - the book would be empty or missing something without a poem about that.
And Lucille - there aren't so many, actually, and Lucille Clifton, I think, did a great job.
CONAN: Why don't we go to safer ground in the first category, and that is falling in love. And there's - you mention in your introduction a poet among the very first poets that we know of.
Ms. KENNEDY: It's also a woman, Sappho. Is that who you're...
CONAN: Indeed it is, yes.
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, there's a couple of poems of hers in the book. One is incredibly profound in the death and grief section, and then there's one that I love, and she was a - having spent time in Greece when my mother was married, she was obviously somebody that wrote so beautifully about nature. And it's just amazing that it was - that they're 2,000 or more years old.
So there's one in the book called "To Aphrodite of the Flowers at Knossos." Leave Crete and come to this holy temple, where the pleasant grove of apple trees circles an altar smoking with frankincense.
Here, roses leave shadow on the ground, and cold springs babble through apple branches where shuddering leaves pour down profound sleep.
In our meadow where horses graze and wild flowers of spring blossom, anise shoots fill the air with aroma.
And here, Queen Aphrodite, pour heavenly nectar into gold cups and fill them gracefully with sudden joy.
CONAN: And that's Sappho. And these are not necessarily complete poems.
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, no. Many of hers are just fragments that have survived. So -but I think that they're still - they're quite amazing.
CONAN: There was a process in your family that you described, I think, when you put together that book of poems for your mother a few years ago, that you and your brother growing up were asked every holiday - or big holidays and birthdays - to present a poem to the family.
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, we had to pick out a poem for my mother. She had to buy us presents. So I just want to make clear that this was a one-way deal.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KENNEDY: But she really wanted for us to have us pick out a poem that we liked. And I think it was a wonderful way of just opening up an exploration and discovery that was completely self-motivated and no homework, no pressure.
And we just had to pick out a poem and copy it over and memorize it if we wanted, but we didn't have to. And so she saved all those poems and put them in a scrapbook, which I still have.
And I've tried to continue that with my own children. And looking back over the poems that we chose at different ages is almost like looking at photographs, because from the handwriting and the illustrations and just the poems themselves, I can just see so much about each one of us at different ages.
And, of course, we became very competitive about this process and whose poem was going to be better and whose poem she was going to like more. But I think it really gave both of us just a confidence that we could understand poetry, that we - there was nothing, really, to be afraid of, and there were so many poems out there.
So I think it was a wonderful way of inspiring that curiosity in us, and I think it's a great family tradition that people would really enjoy.
CONAN: Has that tradition been easy? You mention your kids now in adolescence. Has it been easy to continue it when they enter their teen years?
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, no. But, of course, they know that if they give a poem, you know, that's just such a homerun that they're happy to, you know, to throw us a bone. That and they make a play list for my iPod, and then I'm happy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KENNEDY: But actually my middle daughter gave me a poem that she had chosen - she translated one last year, and then she gave me one this year for Christmas. And it's - actually, I was able to put it in the book. It's the last one in the book, by Elizabeth Bishop, "The Colder the Air."
And so, for me, that gives this book a special meaning, because it has poems in it that, you know, that my mother loved, as well as that my children have chosen.
CONAN: It's interesting. We had Billy Collins on the show last week, and he was talking about part of the problem in our adult appreciation of poetry is that when we're teenagers in high school, the way it's taught, we learn to put up our poetry deflector shields, as he described it, because we know if the teacher starts reading a poem, the next thing we're going to get is a bunch of questions.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, that was good. We never had that. But I think people get intimidated by poetry, and it just makes them feel like they can't understand it. And I think that that's really unfortunate.
And, in fact, I've been working in an after-school poetry program in the Bronx, and the kids there are writing poetry much more than they are reading it. And I think that the spoken-word movement and the confidence it brings and the self-expression and the self-discovery that come along with writing poetry for adolescents is really a wonderful thing and hopefully will bring back some of the accessibility of poetry.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our guest: Caroline Kennedy. Her new book is "She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems." And we're asking you, if there's a particular poem that occurred to you at a critical moment of your life, to give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll start with Peter, and Peter's on the line with us from Berkeley in California.
PETER (Caller): Hi, great topic. Yeah, I mean, I've had a poem by Robert Frost that's been kind of the credo for my life. During the 1970s, I refused to get a regular day job in order to promote and teach transcendental meditation, even despite great odds. And now it's getting mainstream. And from the mid-1980s to the present, I've refused to get a day job in order to promote common peace ideals for our planet.
So what has always given me encouragement is the ending of "Two Tramps in Mud Time" by Frost. And he says: Yield who will to their separation. My object in living is to unite my avocation and my vocation as my two eyes make one in sight. Only where love and need are one and the work is play for mortal stakes is the deed ever really done for heaven and the future's sakes.
CONAN: And were you reciting that from memory, Peter?
(Soundbite of laughter)
PETER: I want it to be on my gravestone.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KENNEDY: That's great.
CONAN: I wonder, Caroline Kennedy, how many poems can you recite from memory?
Ms. KENNEDY: Oh, I can't recite too many poems fully, but I've got a lot of lines in there, all jumbled up together.
CONAN: Yeah, I could probably get through "The Jabberwocky," and that's about it.
Ms. KENNEDY: Oh, I definitely couldn't do that.
PETER: There's an earlier part of that poem, if you'd like, I'll recite that.
CONAN: No, that's all right, Peter. We'll give some other people a chance.
PETER: I recommend it. Bye-bye. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much. It's interesting he chose Robert Frost, of course, Caroline Kennedy, a poet who's been a significant force in your family's history.
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, I think that was one of the most symbolic and, in a way, important acts that my father did right at the beginning of his presidency. You know, we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the inauguration a couple months ago. And he invited Robert Frost to read, and I think that really kind of elevated the importance of the arts and language and ideas and rhetoric and showed the kind of central role it was going to play in his presidency, and connected that ceremony back to its kind of classical origins. And so it's been a thrill to watch that tradition continue.
CONAN: I remember, as a young lad, watching that on television and wondering at that old, gray-haired man. I guess I was wrong to say he was reading the poem, because that's not the way Robert Frost ever put it.
Ms. KENNEDY: No. And also that day, I guess the sun was so bright on the snow that he couldn't see the words on the page. And so he ended up reciting from memory his unbelievably great poem "The Gift Outright." And so it was sort of especially meaningful.
CONAN: We're talking with Caroline Kennedy. Her book is titled "She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems." If there was a poem that meant something important at a critical moment in your life, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website - that's at npr.org - and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
When we return, Elizabeth Alexander will join us. She's had a similar experience that - enjoyed by Robert Frost all those years ago. She's going to be with us here in Studio 3A.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
We're talking with Caroline Kennedy about the poems that have spoken to her over the years as a daughter, a woman, a wife, a mother and a writer. The new collection is titled "She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems." You can read more about which pieces she chose and why. We've posted an excerpt from the book at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
If there was a poem that meant something important at a critical moment in your life, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And Caroline Kennedy is with us from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. With us here in Studio 3A is Elizabeth Alexander. Her most recent collection of poetry is titled "Crave Radiance."
And it's wonderful to have you with us here.
Ms. ELIZABETH ALEXANDER (Poet, "Crave Radiance"): It's great to be here. Thanks.
CONAN: And there's one category in the book called "Motherhood," you contributed a poem to that - or I guess you were selected for that, and I wonder if you could read it for us.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Absolutely. This poem is called "Ode." I love all the mom bodies at this beach: the tummies, the one-piece bathing suits, the bosoms that slope, the wide, nice bottoms, thigh-flesh shirred as gentle wind shirrs a pond.
So many sensible haircuts and ponytails. These bodies show they have grown babies, then nourished them, woken to their cries, fretted at their fevers. Biceps have lifted and toted the babies now printed on their mothers.
If you lined up a hundred vaginas, I could tell you which ones have borne children, the midwife says. In the secret place or in sunlight at the beach, our bodies say: This is who we are. No, this is what we have done and continue to do. We labor in love. We do it. We mother.
CONAN: And Caroline Kennedy, how come you chose that particular one?
Ms. KENNEDY: Oh, well, I just, I love that poem. I love Elizabeth Alexander's work. And I just - I think for any mother, I think that's such a glorious description of what we do.
CONAN: I wonder, Elizabeth Alexander, when you're writing poetry, do you consider the effects on the audience? Are you writing for yourself, or are you wondering how this is going to impact people?
Ms. ALEXANDER: I never, ever, ever, ever think about how the poems will impact people. That's not something that you can anticipate. That's something that, in fact, if you start to wonder about it, corrupts the process of writing the poem, 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.
So once it's a done thing and out in the world, then audiences find what they will in it.
CONAN: Here's an email that we have from B.Z. Smith(ph) in California: At 16, I memorized "The Road not Taken," and little did I know that it would become my life's anthem: quitting college, divorcing, remarrying, babies, death of my husband, going back to school. Always, I've been on the road not taken.
Now, at 61, I work with my local arts council, helping with the national poetry Out Loud program that introduces teens to classic poetry. And that's one. There's also this one I thought was interesting from Kelly in Buffalo: When my husband and I were married in 2001, our priest read the poem "Scaffolding" by Seamus Heaney to us. I'm an architect, and we loved it.
It was one of our prized gifts from the wedding, and it has come to represent our marriage. We read it to each other at our anniversary every year.
And, well, I'd be interested, both of you: Weddings seem to be a moment when most people seem to embrace poetry.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, absolutely. And all of the occasions and crossroads of our lives, I think, called for distilled language with which to mark those moments with which to remember, with which to put a jumble of feelings and emotions into something that's crystal clear and that you can hold in the palm of your hand.
And I think, Neal, you and Caroline were talking earlier about people's fear of poetry, and I just wanted to second or third the call not to be afraid of poems. And I think that actually evidence is to the contrary. I think that everywhere, people are finding that to have heightened language that they can hold onto in the middle of their lives is something profoundly human and ancient, actually.
CONAN: Heightened language?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Heightened language. So I think that even when poetry is plainspoken - that is to say, even when it means to - for example, the poem that I read is a relatively direct and plainspoken poem. But the language itself is much more distilled than if I told you that story over the course of a longer period of time.
So I think finding the best words, even when they're simple words, and putting them into a kind of a small jewel is what - one of the things that we're trying to do when we make poems.
Ms. KENNEDY: I think, also, you mentioned weddings. Obviously, that's a time when everybody runs for the poetry books and tries to find the right poem or the right verse, Bible verse, to capture that moment, which is obviously one of the extraordinary moments in our lives.
But I think - or least what I hope would come out of some of this is that there are so many ordinary moments in our life, and that poems can make them extraordinary. And I think they give you a new way of looking at the ordinary moments.
They bring emotion and they bring history and they bring wisdom or insight or clarity, and really can transform our daily life. And so hopefully, by putting other poems in the book, along with love poems that are maybe good for weddings, people will, you know, turn a couple pages on and find something that helps them look at their own life in a different way. Because I think poets put into words the thoughts and feelings that we all have, but we can't quite say them. And they take the time, and they have the insight to be able to, as Elizabeth said, to distill or to heighten those.
CONAN: Let's go next to Sara(ph), Sara on the line from Fairbanks in Alaska.
SARA (Caller): Hi.
SARA: I am calling because I wanted to share a poem from Sylvia Plath called "Child," which really helped me out quite a bit when I was a new mother.
SARA: Should I read it?
SARA: Okay. "Child." Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing. I want to fill it with color and ducks, the zoo of the new, whose names you meditate: April snowdrop, Indian pipe, little.
Stalk without wrinkle, pool in which images should be grand and classical, not this troublous wringing of hands, this dark ceiling without a star.
And I love this poem because even though it's sort of devastating and sad, it really helped me a lot to adjust to my new role as a mother when I had little babies, because I realized that I was the whole universe to them. And it made it seem so important for me to, like, keep it together and be good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: When did you first read that, Sara?
SARA: I think I read it probably when I was younger, before I ever had children, and then it didn't really speak to me until I had them. And then it sort of became a mantra.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And that addresses the interest that you have going back over the years, to things you had read earlier, maybe things that you had those poetry deflectors up for, even in school, and reconsidering.
SARA: Yeah, well, I always loved poetry. So I didn't have a lot of deflectors.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SARA: But I don't think I was attracted to this poem until I had the sort of experience of, you know, what am I in this situation.
CONAN: And Caroline Kennedy, you wrote in the introduction, it would've been hard to do this book until you had, in fact, turned 50.
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, I just think it's a time when a lot of people are sort of reflecting on their lives and where they've come from and what they want to do the same or differently going forward and there's still enough time to be able to make some of those changes and decisions.
And so poetry is really, I think, a perfect place to turn for those kinds of time in your life when you're going through a transition or - and just thinking about different kinds of things.
You know, your parents are getting older. Your children are growing up. All those stages of life, I think, can - you just get a new perspective on. I mean, poetry can deepen your own experience, as well as give you insight into someone else's.
There's a poem in the book by Seamus Heaney about when he was kept home from church by his mother to help her peel the potatoes while everyone else was off at mass. And it really spoke to me about that sort of - when you're a child, and you have that special time with an older person, as well as - as a mother, it spoke to me in terms of how important it is to take the time with an individual child to do something special and make some special time.
So I think that depending on where you are in your own life, you do come back to poems, and they have these layers of meaning. Or if you have a poem that you know meant something to your mother or grandmother or grandfather, then that -you pass those memories and feelings along to whoever you share the poem with.
CONAN: I was interested - and Sara, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
SARA: Thank you.
CONAN: That Seamus Heaney could have fit in any number of your categories.
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, many of the poems could. And, of course, the categories are just sort of arbitrary.
Ms. KENNEDY: But people like to have boundaries around things, I find. Otherwise it's just - you know, gets a little chaotic feeling.
CONAN: Well, my idea of getting one from each category long since fallen in the dust. But as long as Elizabeth Alexander is here, I was wondering if I could ask her to turn to page 67. And this is in the set of poems called "Breaking up." I think an experience that is just about as universal as taking breath, and read her poem called "The End."
Ms. ALEXANDER: Happily. "The End." The last thing of you is a doll, velveteen and spangle, silk douponi trousers, Ali Baba slippers that curl up at the toes, tinsel moustache, a doll we had made in your image for our wedding with one of me which you have. They sat atop our coconut cake. We cut it into snowy squares and fed each other while God watched.
All other things are gone now, the letters boxed, pajama-sized shirts bagged for Goodwill, odd utensils farmed to graduating students starting first apartments. Citrus zester, apple corer, rusting mandolin, childhood pictures returned to your mother. Trinkets sorted real from fake and molten to a single bar of gold, untruths parsed, most things unsnarled, the rest let go.
Save the doll, which I find in a closet, examine closely, then set into a hospitable tree, which I drive past daily for weeks and see it still there: in the rain, in the wind, fading in the sun. No one will take it. It will not blow away in the rain, in the wind. It holds tight to its branch. Then one day it is gone.
CONAN: That was lovely. Thank you. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Larry, Larry with us from Naples in Florida.
LARRY (Caller): Hi. Am I on?
CONAN: Yeah, you are.
LARRY: Well, my daughter's freshman year in college, she dropped out after a semester. And I felt really disconnected. She stayed in that town. She was about 2,000 miles away. And so I ran across a poem in The New Yorker magazine by Mark Strand called "My Name," and it just really fit perfectly. And I thought it kind of - I think it kind of matched how I was feeling. And I often send her poems. I'm sorry. I just rushed in from the car. And I often send her poems, but this one was the best one.
And I think what I like most was - it says: Once when the lawn was a golden green and the marbled moonlit trees rose like fresh memorials in the scented air, and the whole countryside pulsed with the chirr and murmur of insects, I lay in the grass, feeling the great distances open above me, and wondered what I would become and where I would find myself. And though I barely existed, I felt for an instant that the vast star-clustered sky was mine. And I heard my name as if for the first time.
So It was pretty cool. I think she got a lot of meaning out of it and I know she keeps the poems I send her, which just makes me feel happy.
CONAN: Larry, that's a wonderful story. Did she respond directly to that one?
LARRY: No. That's her way, she doesn't. She just know there's a connection there. And I know she keeps the poems at times. I hope she's listening now. I do love her.
CONAN: Larry, thank you very much. We wish you and your daughter the best.
LARRY: All right. Thanks. Bye.
CONAN: We're talking with Caroline Kennedy about her new book, "She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems." Also with us, poet Elizabeth Alexander. Her most recent collection is called "Crave Radiance." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.
And I wonder, Elizabeth Alexander, as you consider the other poets that you're collected with in this book, pretty good company.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Extraordinary company. This collection, first of all, allows us to kind of pick through it across the centuries and also across the extraordinary, rich diversity of contemporary American poetry. These times are juicy for the poetic word and there is so much of that to choose from here. What I also think is quite wonderful is, the book is subtitled "A Woman's Journey Through Poems." So it is something that you can sort of taste from as from a box of chocolates. But you can also read it straight through, actually. There is a wonderful narrative arc that the whole book has. And I've approached it both ways. And it's its own beautiful thing both ways.
To be with so many poets - Lucille Clifton, Seamus Heaney, Gwendolyn Brooks -poets who have personally meant so much to me, poets whose work has shown me how to write, has - is a great thing.
CONAN: I've asked Caroline Kennedy to indulge me with our ending. It's a poem that I know meant a lot to her mother, called "Ithaka," by Constantine Cavafy. I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. And I've asked her to share verses with me, and I know it means a lot to her too.
Ms. KENNEDY: Oh, well, thank you. Yeah. It was one of my mother's favorite poems from the time that we spent in Greece. And Cavafy was a poet that she very much admired. He had a short and somewhat tragic life. But I think his poetry is incredibly powerful. And I would - this has become probably his famous poem, but I would encourage people to read the rest of his poems. I think there's one other one in this book. There are so many others.
CONAN: As you set out for Ithaka, hope the voyage is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery. Laistrygonians and the Cyclops, angry Poseidon, don't be afraid of them. You'll never find things like that on your way as long as you keep your thoughts raised high, as long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body. Laistrygonians and the Cyclops, wild Poseidon, you wouldn't encounter them unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Ms. KENNEDY: Hope the voyage is a long one. May there be many a summer morning when, with what pleasure, what joy, you come into harbors seen for the first time. May you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things; mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, sensual perfume of every kind, as many sensual perfumes as you can. And may you visit many Egyptian cities to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
CONAN: Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you're destined for. But do not hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you're old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you've gained along the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ms. KENNEDY: Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her, you would not have set out. She has nothing left to give you now.
CONAN: And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Caroline Kennedy, thank you so much for your time today.
Ms. KENNEDY: Thank you so much.
CONAN: That was fun.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KENNEDY: That was great. Thank you, Elizabeth.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, what a pleasure. Thanks all around.
CONAN: Elizabeth Alexander's most recent book of poetry is called "Crave Radiance." Caroline Kennedy's new anthology is called "She Walks in Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems." Caroline Kennedy joined us from KQED in San Francisco. Elizabeth Alexander was with us here in Studio 3A.