In celebration of National Poetry Month, on April 5, Caroline Kennedy released her third anthology of poetry, She Walks In Beauty: A Woman's Journey Through Poems. Kennedy, who has also written books on constitutional law, American history and politics, describes her poetry projects as coming about in a random way. "I was lucky in that I grew up in a family who always shared ideas, reading and poetry,'' she said. "When my mother died, people were remembering her for different things, for her style, for example. I really felt like they were missing the most important part of her, her love of words and books. So the first one (The Best Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) was to celebrate her and what she passed on to my brother and me. The poetry books have continued from there.''
This new collection began around the time the only surviving child of John F. Kennedy was turning 50. After three friends sent her poetry as birthday gifts, Kennedy, now 53, realized her next book should focus on the stages of a woman's life. We caught up with Kennedy by phone from her home in New York.
What's on your nightstand?
My nightstand is pretty intense. I'm reading The Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle. Also, I'm very interested in reading about different parts of the world. It's odd, but I had just finished Fear and Trembling (by Amelie Nothomb), a novel based in Japan, right before the earthquake and tsunami. It's a quick book and very good. I also have Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian who won the Nobel Prize. My mom had edited it years ago, and I remember her talking about it and being very excited about it. Because of everything going on in Egypt, I decided to take it off the shelves.
This was the first time you read it?
Yes. It's really a fascinating book because it describes Cairo's society during the time of World War I and family life there. It's very much for the Westerner, the American reader. It covers family life and how the role of women in society at that time was breathtakingly different. At the end, it gets really fascinating because the sons in the book get caught up in street demonstrations. I had no idea that was where the book was headed. I remember my mother talking about the slow pace of life in Cairo, and it was interesting reading it now against the backdrop of current events. I also just recently read Cleopatra (by Stacy Schiff).
At certain times in your life, have there been poets you've considered your go-to poets?
There are certain ones that capture a particular time. When I was young, I remember my mother had ones she liked specifically. There was Yeats. Obviously, he is incredible and now when I read him it brings back a lot of memories. For me, Elizabeth Bishop stands out. Her poem One Art is a favorite of mine, and as a Christmas gift, my daughter gave me another one of her poems, The Colder the Air. That is so special to me that I made it the last poem in the book.
One of my favorite poems in the book was Girlfriends (by Ellen Dore Watson).
Yes, I love the last line on how girlfriends are "the porches where we land." I thought it was important in a collection of poetry for women to include a section on friendships. It was harder than I expected to find poems about friendships between women.
That is surprising because women are very sentimental about their girlfriends.
Exactly. Maybe the book will open that up more.
In the whirlwind of 2011, some might think that to stop and read poetry would be a nuisance. Can you speak on your perception of the state of poetry?
It is true. Poetry is not something that if you turn on the television people are talking about. That's for sure. However, it is suited to our pace of life today in a very certain way. Poems are short. They are really intense. They can help you see something in a new way and capture a lot of emotion. People are looking for how to live a meaningful life and how to live better. That's what poems are about. Part of the problem is that people get intimidated by poetry.
You included both Robert Frost, who read at your father's inauguration, and Elizabeth Alexander, who read at Barack Obama's. Do you know Elizabeth Alexander?
Robert Frost certainly holds a special place for me. I saw Elizabeth Alexander by chance at an event not so long ago. She reminded me that we had met before. She's actually going to come and talk at the Kennedy Library. She's amazing.
You mentioned intimidation earlier. Clearly, you are not intimidated by classic poetry.
No. If someone is having trouble reading a poem, usually they can find one line in the poem that moves them. They should hold onto that. Besides, it's poetry. There's nothing to be intimidated about.
Piper Castillo, Times staff writer