NEAL CONAN, HOST:
If we learn poems by heart, writes Caroline Kennedy, we will always have their wisdom to drawn on, and we gain understanding that no one can take away. Two years ago, she published a collection of her favorite poems. Now, Caroline Kennedy's out with a new book of poetry for children and an agenda: to return to the memorization and recitation that both families and schools once considered routine.
So did you hate having to memorize and recite, or did you learn from it? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Caroline Kennedy joins us from our bureau in New York. Her latest book is "Poems to Learn by Heart." And welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.
CAROLINE KENNEDY: Thank you.
CONAN: And I wonder: What was your experience like when you were asked to recite something you'd memorized?
KENNEDY: Well, I hated speaking in public, unlike some other members of my family. But I loved reading and reading, and having the opportunity to sort of read deeply or sort of have the poem become part of you. That's part of learning a poem by heart, and I think that's very valuable. And I think also I've found working with students today that sharing poems, sharing their own work, as well as reciting other poems is something that's becoming much more popular again among younger people. And I think it's really interesting, because it does allow us - poems allow us to connect in a way that other forms of the written word don't. And I think the kids are really into - onto that. And I don't know if it has something to do with technology, and both the connection and the isolation that that provides. And poems, really, are sort of something that knits people together.
CONAN: Also, if you learn to communicate in 140 characters, you have to learn to compress things.
KENNEDY: Exactly. And poems already do that. It's not like a chapter book. They're intense and they're emotional. And I think for kids, we - and as adults, we need to surround younger people, children with words and with ideas and with language and turn them on to reading and exploration so that they begin this journey that will carry them through their life as lifelong learners. And it's something that I think that poetry can really play a role in, because little kids love to - the rhyme and the rhythm. And then as you get older, you like to explore the feeling. So I think there's something in it for all ages.
CONAN: And it is something that schools and, as you point out in your book, families have gotten away from.
KENNEDY: Well, I know for me, I think the reason that I had such a positive association with poetry - which I know is unusual - it's something that my mother really enjoyed, that she got from her grandfather. And then my own family on the other side, my grandmother Rose Kennedy used to - and my Uncle Teddy, they used to love her recite "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" when we were all there. So I think it's really something that families used to do together, and something that generations can enjoy together. And I think that families today, which are much more fragmented and there's much more competition for kids' attention, different generations are often looking for things that they can connect over. And I think some of these timeless poems or writing your own poems together are a way that different generations can come together and enjoy something.
CONAN: I never met your grandmother, but I did meet your uncle, and it's fair to say that he could be a bit of a ham. He really enjoyed that sort of thing.
KENNEDY: Well, if you couldn't stop him from singing, you definitely couldn't stop him from...
KENNEDY: He used to come to my book signings in Washington and Boston and offered to recite "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" in the bookstore to anybody who would listen. But it was - made it much fun as a child to have his booming voice. And it made us all feel like we could get up in the middle of the night and, you know, save, you know, history and play a part in, you know, this country. And it was a great and fun thing that I think was a treasured memory for me and all my cousins.
CONAN: And you included that poem in this collection. It's one of those that, well, somebody might look at and say, it's a little old fashioned, don't you think?
KENNEDY: Well, of course. But I think that's one of the fun things about it because it's old fashioned, but it carries you along and it's something that I think a lot of people - that's one of the few poems that schools do still require kids to memorize. Not necessarily one child memorizing the whole thing but in a team or in a group and which I think is another thing that's happening to poetry today. People are composing collaboratively. They're composing online collaboratively. And some of these older poems also lend themselves to group recitation, and it makes it fun. It's supposed - people think of poetry as being so elitist and intimidating, and it makes them feel stupid and all that sort of thing. But I think once people share a poem or find a poem they like or write a poem, that really changes.
CONAN: I'm going to take a point of privilege here and read the first poem in the book. It's called "The First Book" by Rita Dove. Open it. Go ahead, it won't bite. Well, maybe a little. Move a nip, like. A tingle. It's pleasurable, really. You see, it keeps on opening. You may fall in. Sure, it's hard to get started. Remembering learning to use knife and fork? Dig in. You'll never reach the bottom. It's not like it's the end of the world, just the world as you think you know it.
KENNEDY: Right. I mean, it just continues to open up, and these poems then travel with you throughout your life and then enrich whatever it is that you're doing. There's a Robert Frost poem in here called "Devotion," which is - goes, I can think of no devotion greater than that of shore to ocean, holding the curve of one position in an endless repetition. And I think I want to go swimming, and you just think about so if I wasn't thinking of that, I'd be thinking about what I had to do that day, but it makes my swim much more fun.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get caller in on the conversation. We want to hear about your experience memorizing and reciting poetry. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. And let's start with Tony(ph), and Tony's on the line with us from Fort Knox in Kentucky.
TONY: Thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead.
TONY: I'm a union actor, and I wanted to comment on the poetry and recitation, something we do for training, you know, in various theater programs. And I just got to, you know, back up our speaker here today to say that there is nothing like being able to recite the "Hamlet" soliloquyor even recite Dr. Seuss. As crazy as that sounds, to me it becomes almost a spiritual activity where you can, you know, be driving somewhere or be in the shower, recite one of these poems, recite one of these great monologues and know that you can never lose that.
CONAN: Can never lose it. That's another point you make, Caroline Kennedy, that this is something you can give away and keep at the same time.
KENNEDY: Right. And then you share with someone and you have this bond that, I think, is very intense. It's not necessarily - nothing else has to happen, but you know that you have this poem. You gave them something that means something to you, and those are the best kind of gifts to give or to receive. And just to back up my backer up...
KENNEDY: ...I will say that we just had this - there's a poetry out loud recitation competition that's going on now. And when I first did a poetry anthology for kids, which is, I think, in five or six years ago...
KENNEDY: Yeah, there were about 7,000 kids participating. And now there are 375,000 high schoolers participating, many in drama programs rather than necessarily people who like to write who maybe are less extroverted. But it's - that's an incredible thing that there are 375,000 kids doing poetry recitation across this country.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Tony.
TONY: Thank you. Have a good afternoon.
CONAN: And it's interesting he mentioned Dr. Seuss. As somebody who reads copy on the radio, I thought I benefitted tremendously after learning to read Dr. Seuss and other children's books to my kids in the rocking chair.
KENNEDY: Oh, I bet. And I always say even to myself it's fun to have fun, but you've got to know how.
CONAN: Here's a tweet from Melissa Dunmore(ph). I learned from it, not just from the act of memorization but from the act of empathizing with another's experience through their own words. And some people say, wait a minute, you're memorizing by rote. You're learning by rote. What do you learn from that?
KENNEDY: Well, you're - by rote has sort of a negative connotation. I don't even know why. But I think what you're really doing is you're just sort of absorbing these feelings, these emotions, these experiences of someone else's and being able to understand them because they become part of you. And you realize that these are universal feelings. And we may all put them into words in different ways, but sometimes when you have a poem that you feel captures exactly what you're feeling but you haven't been able to put it into the words that the poet has, and so I think that that's what makes it so sort of - that you're able - it's a - it becomes part of you in a way.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. Let's go to Mason(ph). Mason with us from Denver.
MASON: Yeah. I am a parent and a layman poet. I've always written my own poetry since I was a young child. I'm now a parent of three children. And when I was young, my parents used to read poetry to me, and I used to memorize them with no problem. When I got into primary school and on into high school, the learning process went from something of enjoyment and easy retention to - we live in a society that forces education as a process of memorization and regurgitation. But the retention part is a little bit left out, and I'm not sure why.
I noticed by the time I was in college that I really was not retaining as much of the information that I was getting in my schooling and my education process as I would like to and I never knew why until I started to raise my own children. And I've raised them a little bit differently, kind of with some guidance of the Waldorf curriculum. The process of raising children as young is a lot of oration, and I noticed that my children have become very avid readers and their retention rate seems to be really high. But I think that our society has really revolved around this memorization-regurgitation and it's made it really difficult for people like me who would love to be able to (technical difficulty) my own poetry, let alone the poets - the poetry of others. And I've just never been able to do it. I don't know if something that just some people aren't good at memorizing. But I think there is also something there and the way that we're educated.
KENNEDY: I think that's right and I think we don't rely on the oral and spoken communications in education probably maybe as much as written, visual. And so, you know, that part falls away because it does take some practice and focus. I also think that kids today don't develop the ability to focus and concentrate for long periods of time, in a way, I mean, think that the society works against that ability. And so poetry is a way of reconnecting with that kind of focused part of yourself. So I think it has value, as you say, on many levels.
And if you can't remember anything now as a parent of young children, just wait till you get older. I found actually since I started promoting this book that a lot of older people - I realized this shouldn't be just for kids because older people are the ones that are really working on keeping their, you know, memories going strong. And, I mean, what's more fun than, you know, trying to memorize a poem that's better than a lot of the other thing - you know, crossword puzzles or whatever, which are fun, but they don't stick with you in the same way.
CONAN: Mason, thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: We're talking with Caroline Kennedy about her new collection, "Poems to Learn by Heart." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And this email from Amy(ph) in Texas: Cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, volleyed and thundered into the valley of death, rode the six hundred.
KENNEDY: Stormed at with shot and shell, boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell, rode the six hundred.
CONAN: Alfred Lord Tennyson, "The Charge of the Light Brigade." Sixth grade, Manzanita Elementary School at Kingman, Arizona, if pushed and with a bit of time, I could probably recite badly the entire poem. Hazzah for poetry and for memorization. So obviously, that is among those you've committed to memory and it's included in the book. But I wanted to ask you have you gotten any negative response? You have different categories of poems, of poems about yourself, various other elements. But one of them is poems about war.
KENNEDY: Well, I thought it was important when I started working on this book. It was a few years ago. I mean, our country was involved in two wars. And I think that kids are very well aware of that, and I think that these poems are some of the greatest in the English language and certainly the subjects that they deal with, whether it's loss or bravery or courage or sacrifice or sadness are universal, deep human emotions. And I thought that it was important to include poems in the book that deal with important subjects and answer questions about life and death and because kids are thinking about those things.
And so a couple of people have asked me and thought maybe some of the poems were controversial or too complex. But I think that it's much better to challenge kids than to talk down to them, and I find a lot of poems that I see used are kind of dopey and flat. And so I'm not surprised that children aren't interested in memorizing them. But I think these are poems that hopefully will make people think and ask questions, and that's really one of the goals, isn't it?
CONAN: You also do include the famous Shakespeare from "Henry V." We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. But there's also plenty of poems in this section that's sort of challenged the idea that there's any romanticism or gallantry in war.
KENNEDY: Right. Well, they're - those are big questions and they're important questions. And I think as we, you know, "The Iliad" I've listened to last summer, and it's both got great rhetoric about bravery and the desire to fight for something and then also it's an incredibly powerful antiwar epic also and the suffering that goes along with war. So I think I tried to sort of present some of the different aspects and feelings that people have about serving and fighting in battle.
And I also noticed this - I hope people don't take this the wrong way, but - when I memorized "The Charge of the Light Brigade," I did it because two of my boy cousins were doing it and I wanted to be able to keep up. And I thought it was a better, you know, shorter than "Casey at the Bat." So I took that. But when I did my other poetry anthology, everybody was buying it for their daughters, and nobody bought the book for their - no one ever told me they were buying it for their son.
KENNEDY: And so I thought, OK, well, what did boys typically like? What kind of poems might they like? And I looked through the scrapbook that - of poems that my brother and I chose when we were young, and he chose a lot of poems about battle and war. And then I also put in here a bunch of poems about sports and - because I just want to get across that this is all - it's just talking about life and all the activities that we do and share, enjoy or hate or - and so both sort of, you know, sports and also war are two of those and occupy a lot of time in our society. So I thought they were worth including.
CONAN: We'll end with this email from Laurie(ph) in St. Paul: My father only completed eighth grade in the 1930s. But I remembered him reciting "The Village Smithy" often during my childhood. He clearly enjoyed reciting the poem and the sound of his voice stays with me even now. And that's another element that we remember the recitations of those performances in a way that we may not remember other things about our family members. Caroline Kennedy, thank you so much for being with us.
KENNEDY: Thank you.
CONAN: And good luck with the book.
KENNEDY: Thanks so much.
CONAN: Caroline Kennedy joined us from our bureau in New York. The name of the book is "Poems to Learn by Heart." This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.