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Caroline Kennedy at the St. Louis County Library!

by Diana Davis
Poems to Learn by HeartThere was standing room only as over a thousand people crowded into the St. Louis County Library to hear the interview that Caroline Kennedy, author of Poems to Learn by Heart, did with Moderator Debbie Monterrey, of KMOX radio.  Prior to the introduction of Kennedy, Monterrey  announced we would be treated to recitations of the Poetry Out Loud 2013 winning performances by the regional and state champions from St. Charles, St. Louis County, and St. Louis City.  Mr. Thomas Fields, a junior at St. Louis University High School recited Adam’s Curse by William Butler Yeats; Berklea Going, a junior from Nerinx Hall High School performed The Truly Great by Stephen Spender, and the Missouri State Champion, Essence Lee, a junior from Crossroads College Preparatory School, delivered I Find No Peace by Sir Thomas Wyatt.

When Caroline Kennedy was introduced and asked a question, she stated that before she began her interview, she wanted to commend the work of the students and to tell them how much she appreciated hearing their recitations of poetry. She commented that she had now heard the State Champions from Massachusetts, Illinois and Missouri, and was looking forward to the National Championships.

Caroline Kennedy

Credit Dave Moore. Courtesy of Ladue-FrontenacPatch.

Kennedy went on to say that poetry was coming into its own again. Her mother had enjoyed poetry and had tried to integrate it into her children’s lives, so for each holiday, Jackie had the children pick out a poem that they liked, copy it in their own hand, and give it to her as a present, so they too would learn an appreciation of poetry.  Her mother had saved all of their poems in a scrapbook.  This is a fond memory for Caroline who enjoyed looking back to see the changes in the poems selected as well as the changes in the hand-writing as the children matured. Kennedy said she had decided to publish her first book of poetry as a tribute to her mother. She felt that after her mother’s death there was too much focus on her mother’s fashions, her style, sunglasses. These things did not define her mother. Caroline wanted to do something to help people know the woman behind the facade the woman whom she remembers for her intelligence, warmth, fun and gaiety.

Speaking more of her mother’s scrapbook, she laughed and quoted an excerpt from one of John’s favorite childish poems titled, Careless Willie: “Willie with a thirst for gore, nailed his sister to the door, Mother said with humor quaint: ‘Careful, Willie, don’t  spoil the paint.’ “Poetry enriched our lives,” Kennedy said, “and I am carrying on the tradition. My son said he hates poetry, but when my daughter translated some Latin, he became interested. So it is just a matter of finding poetry to fit each person at whatever stage of development he or she is  in.”

Kennedy was asked if hip hop and rap were detrimental to poetry for this generation. She replied that to the contrary, hip hop is expressing a lot of power and emotion, and if you overlook some of the undesirable traits, it is getting young people excited about the spoken word and rhyming. It was announced that the Poetry Out Loud organization had 40,000 participants in 2006, and it had 375,000 participants in 2013. So poetry is alive and well in America.

When asked about her favorite poets, Kennedy responded that she reads traditional poets such as Yeats and Frost, yet as she goes around the family or the community, she hears contemporary works what she really likes also. She is delighted that kids are able to express their feelings about their heritage and their challenges in life.

She also praised the St. Louis County Library and said there were many great libraries throughout the country that were beneficial to schools and the fight to end illiteracy. Moreover, libraries are safe places to go to get off the streets after school. Libraries are doing a great job of being current with modern times, expanding into videos, computers, reading programs, and so much more.

She said all American’s need to be concerned about literacy in America. We have a literacy crisis; 14% of adults in America are functionally illiterate. She and Laura Bush (who was a librarian) are serving on the Library of Congress’ Literacy Awards Program. They plan to examine the education processes of other countries that are doing a better job than the United States educating their citizens.There are better methods of education out there. We just have to locate, adapt, and implement them to help our citizens gain their full potential.

In Kennedy’s book, The Right to Privacy, Kennedy discussed the government’s intrusions into our lives. What does she think about the current media intrusions?  Kennedy answered that media intrusions are a way of life. If you’re the only living child of a U.S. president, you are always going to be in the spotlight.  When Moderator Monterrey asked if she could go to the store without being harassed, Caroline laughed again and said, “Yes, I can shop in peace, but then, I don’t upload my daily schedule like my kids do.”

Monterrey asked about the huge Kennedy family. Most of the Kennedy’s had big families, and all those children have now had more children. Did she know everyone’s names?  Again, Caroline laughed and said, “I’m pretty good with the next generation, I know everybody there, but two generations after me, those people, I don’t  know!”

Kennedy serves as the president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing financial support, staffing, and creative resources for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.  She graduated from Harvard and Columbia Law School. She’s an attorney, writer, editor, and serves on the board of directors for numerous non-profit organizations, including serving as a member of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the vice-chair of the Fund for Public Schools in New York City, and as the chief executive for the New York City Department of Education Office of Strategic Partnerships.

Kennedy was signing her new book, Poems to Learn by Heart. She has also written Listening In, She walks in Beauty, and  A Family Christmas; she co-authored In Our Defense, The Right to Privacy, Best- Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and she also was an editor on two other anthologies, Profiles in Courage for Our Time and A Patriot’s Handbook: Songs, Poems and Speeches Every American Should Know. 

Caroline Kennedy lives in New York City with her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, and their three children. She has continued the tradition of asking her children, Rose, Tatiana and John, for gifts of poetry at holidays as her mother once did.

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