Caroline Kennedy opens up with new book of poems
by Lilli Kuzma; reprinted with permission from Sun Times Media
Caroline Kennedy’s She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems (Voice, $24.99) can be compared to a vase filled with flowers. With poems carefully picked by Kennedy and arranged into sections that go through the phases of a woman’s life, the book is a lyrical exploration of love and life, friendship, marriage, motherhood, work, joy, grief, middle age and growing old.
Images of flowers grace the cover, end papers and pages. Each section is eloquently introduced by Kennedy, providing rare insights into the heart and mind of one of the most private members of the famous family.
The range of poets and styles is richly varied, and includes Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christopher Marlowe, Rudyard Kipling, Queen Elizabeth I, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, W. B. Yeats, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop and Gwendolyn Brooks. She includes the Bible’s “Song of Solomon,” “Code Poem for the French Resistance” and several ethnic folk poems.
“In a funny way, poems are suited to modern life,” Kennedy said in an interview Tuesday at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. “They’re short, they’re intense. Nobody has time to read a 700-page book. People read magazines, and a poem takes less time than an article. The biggest problem is people are afraid of poetry, think they can’t understand it or that it will be boring. So I tried to pick poems that I responded to, and hopefully others will, too.”
Poetry has been important in the Kennedy family, the finding and sharing of poems with family members. Kennedy traces the tradition to her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
“My mother used to visit her grandfather every Wednesday after dancing class, and they’d memorize poetry together. She had memorized Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ when she was 12,” she said. “And in some ways she really brought the love of poetry and language into the family. She introduced my father to many of the poems he quoted.
“Obviously my father cared a lot about words and language and ideas and how to express them, and invited Robert Frost to the inauguration, which we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of. My mother passed this on to my brother and me. At home, we always had to pick out a poem for her for Christmas and birthdays and copy it over, maybe decorate it, and this exploration gave us an appreciation and confidence with poetry that most people don’t have. It wasn’t in school and it wasn’t a pressure thing. Over time, in looking backward, I realize [this] was important.
“After my mom died, there was so much written about her fashion and her style and all that, and I felt that one of the most important parts of her was missing, her real intellectual curiosity.”
Kennedy compiled The Best Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (2001) in tribute to her mom’s love of poetry.
The process of gathering poems for this book began when Kennedy turned 50 in 2007, and this collection is an outgrowth of prior works that contained poems from her childhood and family.
Writing books is something Kennedy has been able to do on her own, having some flexibility while being a parent. But she sees possibilities this fall when she’ll be an empty-nester, possibly even writing her own poetry.
“Maybe I’ll start now, now that I have more time,” she said.