NEW YORK – Beginning work a few years ago on her latest book, an anthology of poems for young people, Caroline Kennedy found herself looking through one of her mother's scrapbooks. She burst into laughter, she says, as she came across a poem that her brother John, as a youngster, had picked out and copied as a gift to their poetry-loving mom.
"Willie with a thirst for gore, Nailed his sister to the door," went the poem, by an unknown author. "Mother said with humor quaint, 'Careful, Willie, don't scratch the paint!'"
The poem "brought back memories of our relationship," Kennedy told a bookstore audience this week. "I laughed so hard."
But for Kennedy, now 55 and a mother of three grown children, there's a deeper meaning to that irreverent ditty. Poetry was a central part of her home life growing up. She and John regularly copied out and illustrated poems for their mother, Jackie, upon birthdays and Mother's Days. Sometimes, they'd recite them too, "if we were feeling competitive." And at family gatherings with their grandmother, there were frequent challenges to recite Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous (and famously lengthy) "Paul Revere's Ride." Only Uncle Ted, it seems, was able to recite it in its entirety.
Now, with her 10th book, Kennedy wants to share with young readers the love for the written word that she feels her poetry-filled childhood helped instill in her (even though her own son, she quips, hates reading and only likes two poems.) Hence the title: "Poems to Learn By Heart."
"It was a combination of remembering my own childhood and thinking about gifts I'd been given," she said in an interview last week at her husband's downtown Manhattan design firm, explaining the genesis of the latest book. "And working in schools and seeing the role that poetry can play in kids' lives."
It's also an effort to promote literacy, a cause Kennedy has supported in a number of ways. "Fourteen percent of American adults can't read," Kennedy says. "It's a slow-motion disaster." She believes poetry can help. "Kids need a way in," she says, "and reading needs to be fun. Poetry can give them that — with the current emphasis on poetry slams, and these other open mic events. That's actually why I think poetry has a chance."
Kennedy's current book — a collection of poems from various authors, with introductions by her to each section, and vivid illustrations by John J Muth — is her fourth to focus on poetry. Her earlier books, especially "The Best Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis," have been huge sellers, pulling in numbers unheard of for poetry anthologies.
"She's committed to becoming an advocate for the written word and poetry in particular," says Gretchen Young, who edited all of Kennedy's poetry books at Hyperion, working with the author to cull down huge numbers of beloved poems. "And she knows she can do that."
As to what else Kennedy can do with her high profile — and the unique and powerful celebrity status she's held since she was a little girl in the Kennedy White House — that is a question that people never cease to ask. The latest rumor has her up for an ambassadorship, perhaps to Japan, perhaps to Canada. Asked about those rumors during a recent TV appearance, she responded with typical restraint: "I'd love to serve in any way." She added that she hadn't been asked yet, and her response is still "No comment."
But many expect Kennedy, who considered seeking an appointment to the Senate from New York in 2009 but then withdrew her name from contention amid a flurry of publicity, to take up some high-profile position in the near future. She was an important and avid supporter of President Barack Obama, both in the 2008 and the 2012 elections.
"I'm really glad he's president," she says now when asked how he's doing, giving him high marks particularly in the field of education. "He can't do all the things he'd like to. We have a lot of problems. That's why I want young people to get engaged."
For now, though, Kennedy is making her mark in different ways. She is president of the John F. Kennedy Library Association, and in May will present the Profile in Courage award to former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She still participates in fundraising activities for the New York City public schools, and is joining Laura Bush and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb to help the Library of Congress promote literacy through a new awards program, along with other authors, publishers and scholars.
Another pet project: Libraries, which she says are still critical places for young people to learn analytical skills. She's the honorary chair of National Library Week next month. "I'm into things that are dying out," she quips, then adds that actually they're not: "My son goes to the library all the time (at college.) There's a lot more socializing at the library than you think."
And she hints that she'll be writing other books, though not on poetry. "I think I'm pretty much done with the poetry books," she says. "I haven't figured out the next thing yet."
In any case, her attention to poetry has been a boon for all poets, says Stephen Young, program director at the Poetry Foundation, based in Chicago. "Selling poetry is, for most poets, a challenge," Young says. "It certainly helps when someone like Caroline Kennedy, who has an earnest and genuine interest in poetry, puts together these anthologies."
And while many might think that in this world of tweets and texts, the art of poetry is slowly dying out, the truth is that it seems to be on the upswing among young people, Young says — partly because of poetry slams and the like, but also due to the Internet. "People can read AND listen to poems on the Web," Young notes.
And clearly, kids like to recite out loud. Along with the National Endowment for the Arts, the poetry foundation sponsors Poetry Out Loud, a contest similar to the National Spelling Bee. In 2006, there were 40,000 participants. This year's contest, which will hold its finals in Washington, D.C., in April, has 375,000, Young says.
It all speaks, in his view, to the fact that "poems are meant to be shared." Kennedy says this too; In her book, along with more famous poems, she includes "Voices Rising," a collaborative poem by students on the "slam team" at DreamYard Prep, a Bronx school Kennedy became familiar with in her work with public schools. Those students contributed ideas to the book, and three of them recited their poem together at Kennedy's kickoff reading last week at Barnes & Noble in New York.
Speaking of young people, Kennedy asked each of her own three kids — Rose and Tatiana, who have finished college, and Jack, who is still there — to contribute a favorite poem to her new book. (Tatiana, the "bookworm" according to her mother, translated a poem from Ovid's Metamorphoses, from the original Latin.) But she herself has trouble picking her favorite.
Asked by an audience member at her book reading to do just that, though, she settled on "Don't Worry if Your Job is Small."
"Don't worry if your job is small, and your rewards are few," it says.
"Remember that the mighty oak, was once a nut like you."