Crucial Literature: Poetry Out Loud with Caroline Kennedy

Rainy Day Books and the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City recently welcomed Caroline Kennedy for a special evening to kick off National Poetry Month in April.

The sold-out event began with presentations by five high school student winners from the Poetry at Park initiative at Park University and Poetry Out Loud. The audience heard original works by Unique Hughley from Paseo Academy, Akil Williams from Grandview High School, and Joseph Tudon from Harmon High School. Then Sierra Sheppard from Oak Park High School and Alyssa Moncure from Notre Dame de Sion High School gave dramatic recitations of The Empty Dance Shoes and Caged Bird, poems selected by the NEA for Poetry Out Loud. Caroline praised the students for their creativity and commitment to poetry and the arts, and also thanked their teachers and parents for their support.

The audience then enjoyed a conversation between Caroline and myself as we discussed the importance of poetry and literature to Caroline and her family and Caroline’s belief that “poetry can connect us to each other in new and powerful ways.” Caroline talked about her grandmother Rose Kennedy’s love of Paul Revere’s Ride (included in the new book Poems to Learn by Heart). She said that her Uncle Teddy was the only one who could recite it completely, and that he would recite it at family gatherings and once came to one of her book signings and recited it there!

When I asked Caroline about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s First Fig, which Caroline’s mother Jackie had taught her to recite when Caroline was about 3 years old, Caroline shared with the audience, “My candle burns at both ends: It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—it gives a lovely light.” Caroline confirmed what she had written in her earlier collection A Family of Poems: “Some people think poetry is solitary or boring. But people who start reading poems when they are young don’t have those fears.”

Caroline talked about how poetry was a central part of her home life growing up. She explained that she and her brother John selected and copied and illustrated poems for their mother for birthdays and Mother’s Day. When she was beginning work on the latest book, she was looking through one of her mother’s scrapbooks and came across a poem that the young John had picked out and copied as a gift for Jackie. She said she burst into laughter when she read: “Willie with a thirst for gore, Nailed his sister to the door.” The audience laughed when she recited the rest, “Mother said with humor quaint, ‘Careful, Willie, don’t scratch the paint!” Caroline shared with the audience that the poem brought back good memories and confirmed her belief that “There’s a poem to celebrate every moment in life.”

Asked at the end if she was optimistic about the future of poetry, she reminded everyone that “Fourteen percent of American adults can’t read. It’s a slow-motion disaster.” She said she thinks that poetry can help. “Kids need a way in, and reading needs to be fun. With the current emphasis on poetry slams and other open mic events, poetry can give them that. The more we support young people as they find their own voices, the farther they can go.”

Vivien Jennings

Vivien Jennings is the Founder & President of Rainy Day Books, Inc., Kansas City’s Community Bookseller, and the oldest Independent Bookstore in the Kansas City Metropolitan Area.

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