RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This being April, National Poetry Month, we turn now to poetry intended for young readers and their elders. It's a new collection put together by Caroline Kennedy. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg explains.
SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:
The cover of the book, A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children, has a photograph taken in the White House of a little blonde girl. Caroline Kennedy, how old do you think you are in this picture?
Ms. CAROLINE KENNEDY (Author; Daughter of Former President John F. Kennedy): Uh, about four or five.
STAMBERG: Yeah, you're sitting on this small chair. You're reading to your stuffed teddy bear, who is also sitting on a little chair. You grew up that way didn't you? Having poems read to you and reading them out loud yourself?
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, both my parents really, I think, loved reading and it was one of the things that they shared and shared with us. And my mother really loved poetry, and from when I was--really as early as I can remember--would recite poems, read us poems.
STAMBERG: Well, this is a tradition, reading poetry to a child, which you carried out with your own children. Could you pick something from this collection that you read out loud to your children?
Ms. KENNEDY: Many of these psalms are their favorites. One of the ones I was thinking of is EE Cummings' in just-.
STAMBERG: I found an old recording of Cummings, himself, reading the beginning of it.
Ms. KENNEDY: Oh, great. Well, I've never heard him.
Mr. EE CUMMINGS (Poet): (Reading) “in just-, spring when the world is mud-luscious, the little lame baloonman whistles far and wee and eddieandbill come running from marbles and piracies and it's spring...”
Ms. KENNEDY: That was great. That didn't sound anything like when I read it.
STAMBERG: And I love the next line. He goes on to write ‘when the world is puddle-wonderful.' Your parents loved language, I know, and you're mother encouraged you and your brother John to make poetry a part of the big celebrations.
Ms. KENNEDY: At our house, particularly for my mother, she didn't want us to buy a present for her; she wanted something that we made. And one of the things that she encouraged us to do was to pick out a poem for each birthday or Christmas. or to write a poem ourselves. And so we spent a lot of time leading up to holidays looking for the perfect poem, looking for the poem that she would like, for her or for our grandparents, and copying it over and illustrating it. And she saved all those poems and I have the scrapbook of them now and it's something that, when I look back at it, it brings back so many memories, just as if they were photographs; and it's a wonderful thing to have and a wonderful way of learning about poetry in a way that isn't school. It's fun and it brings a lot of pleasure.
STAMBERG: You include silly poems and you also include animal poems. And you've got one on page 95 that is both, and I wish you would read it for us ‘cause it's one I grew up with.
Ms. KENNEDY: Wait a second. Oh, the octopus.
Ms. KENNEDY: By Ogden Nash. (Reading) Tell me, O Octopus, I begs; Is those things arms, or is they legs? I marvel at thee, Octopus; If I were thou, I'd call me Us.
STAMBERG: The other great advantage of Nash is he's short. And especially if parents are exhausted at the end of a workday and don't have a whole lot of time, this is one way to get poetry in the air, huh?
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, I think so and I think, also, for kids, especially kids who don't like reading all that much.
STAMBERG: You have a poem that William Carlos Williams wrote and I'm very interested to see that you're including it in this collection for children. It's called This is Just to Say, and we found a recording of William Carlos Williams himself reading it.
Dr. WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS (Poet): (Reading) “This is just to say, I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me. They were delicious. So sweet and so cold...”
STAMBERG: He was a doctor and I can just imagine him leaving the house in the days when doctors made house calls really early in the morning, and his wife is sleeping in bed and he pins this poem on the icebox. I find it a very sensual poem.
Ms. KENNEDY: All that, sort of, ripe fruit in summertime evokes all those kinds of feelings.
STAMBERG: Yeah. Do you ever turn to poetry, as so many people do, in times of trouble when you've had to confront—I mean, you've faced a good deal of tragedy in your life.
Ms. KENNEDY: Well, I think poetry really--and especially the poems that you learn when you're young, even though they're the most familiar, whether it's the 23rd Psalm or prayers or poems, is something that does really sustain people and it's really those important times and those deep emotions where I think poetry really captures all the feelings that we have but we can't put into words. And it's helpful to know that other people have faced things in the past and described the feelings that you now have.
So, I absolutely have, and I know my mother certainly did. I think it is very comforting.
STAMBERG: Let's end with a poem by a very troubled and also astonishing poet, Sylvia Plath. And, you know, I don't think of her as writing poetry for children, but you include a portion of poetry that she did.
Ms. KENNEDY: The Bed Book, that she wrote, which is a wonderful bedtime poem that really was a long poem--this is excerpted here and my mother actually gave it to my daughter and so we used to read it when she was little. And it's all about adventure and it's not about going to bed at all...
Ms. KENNEDY: ...so it was a very diabolical act on her part.
Ms. KENNEDY: (Reading) “Most beds are beds for sleeping or resting, but the best beds are much more interesting. Not just a white little, tucked in tight little, nighty night little, turn out the light little bed. Instead, a bed for fishing, a bed for cats, a bed for a troop of acrobats, the right sort of bed, if you see what I mean, is a bed that might be a submarine nosing through water clear and green, silver and glittery as a sardine.”
So, I think for kids who hate going to bed it's really a perfect poem.
STAMBERG: Yeah. Thank you so much Caroline Kennedy. She has edited the new book, A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children, with terrific illustrations by Jon J. Muth.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And throughout National Poetry Month, you can see recently published poems by American writers at our website, npr.org.
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