Of all the historical and high-end treasures that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis accumulated and left behind, her scrapbook of poems — copied and illustrated by her two children — are what her daughter, Caroline Kennedy, treasures most.
“I have spent the most time looking at that,” Kennedy said the other day, on the phone from her Park Avenue apartment in New York City. “I have it right here in the dining room.”
Every holiday, Caroline (somehow, we feel we can call her that) and her brother, the late John F. Kennedy Jr., each used to select a poem to write in their own hands and then illustrate as a gift to their mother.
“We used to complain about it, and it was a big chore,” Kennedy said. “But then, we secretly liked it. My mother saved them and looked at the scrapbook.”
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The scrapbook fell apart a while ago, Kennedy said, so she had it rebound with marbleized paper and a leather spine. That’s her copy.
For the rest of us, Kennedy, 55, has compiled “Poems to Learn By Heart,” an anthology illustrated by Jon J. Muth.
Kennedy will present the book Monday night in Seattle, in an event that will include poetry written and read by local students and is sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Company and the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library.
The poems include some that Kennedy and her brother copied for their mother, who died in 1994. (John Jr. died in a plane crash in 1999.) Others were recommended by friends.
One was written by a group of students Kennedy has come to know through her volunteer work at an arts center in the Bronx.
The poems are separated into chapters by subject — friendship, love, self, family, war, sports, nature, school, fairies and “nonsense” — and include classics like “Casey at the Bat,” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer; Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and “First They Came for the Jews,” by Martin Niemöller. There is Ogden Nash, Billy Collins, Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings. Herman Melville, Langston Hughes. Tennyson and Auden. William Butler Yeats. Shel Silverstein.
The book also includes a poem called “Voices Rising,” by the DreamYard Prep Slam Team, an after-school center that offers arts programs to middle- and high-school students in New York.
Kennedy, who has been involved in working to reform the New York City school system for over a decade, has volunteered at DreamYard for the last two.
“When I saw these kids performing, … it confirmed my hunch that poetry is not dead, and that it played a role in their lives,” Kennedy said. “It’s incredibly transformative. It gives them a reason to come to school.
“Whether it’s poetry, or painting or theater or dance, the arts are critical.”
At DreamYard, students not only study poets, they write their own poems, like “Voices Rising,” about urban struggles and violence, “… the red blood of black and brown men … spilled on gray cement.”
But then, this line: “This is for the future. For tomorrow. Our very breath is the ink that will write future history books.”
“It’s pretty tough, and that’s not even close to the toughest,” Kennedy said. “It’s a lot about injustice and violence and despair, as well as hope and faith and joy.”
To that end, Kennedy has been leading classes for DreamYard students on how to write essays for their college applications.
“I come from a family that loved words and the power of ideas and I want to share that,” she said. “It’s fun. They’re my friends and I love watching them grow.”
And then there are her own children, who copy and illustrate poems “when forced,” Kennedy said.
Her 22-year-old daughter, Tatiana Schlossberg, translated a poem from “The Metamorphoses, Book 1,” by Ovid, for her at Christmas. Kennedy included it in the book.
Her daughter, Rose, contributed “The Poison Tree” — which she had to memorize in fifth grade — to another one of Kennedy’s books.
Son Jack, 20, chose “Anecdote of the Jar,” by Wallace Stevens, but under some measure of duress, she said.
“He hates fiction, he says, and poetry,” she said, but it’s no big deal. “It’s good to have a breath of fresh air, a different point of view.”
What poem reassures her?
“I don’t have one, because I think that’s what’s great about it,” she said. “There are lots of different fragments of poems that stick with me. Yesterday, I was thinking about ‘Dust of Snow’ by Robert Frost.”
“The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.”
Said Kennedy: “That’s one of the ones I think of when I feel like things aren’t going like I wanted them to.”
You can’t imagine that, really. Kennedy seems to live with a certain ease, but also an inescapable and clearly defined purpose; like every moment is spent upholding the legacy of those who have been taken from her. Her father. Her mother. Her brother.
Just a few weeks ago, it was Kennedy’s duty to announce the annual Profile in Courage Award winner, former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords.
“I do have a lot of obligations and responsibilities,” Kennedy said. “I do my best. And I don’t think it’s a lot of work or a big chore. It’s something that has brought me wonderful friendships and great experiences.
“Everyone has chores,” she added. “Mine may be different, but they are just like anyone else’s.”
And possibilities: Kennedy is reportedly being vetted to become President Obama’s nominee as U.S. ambassador to Japan.
But her life is not all geopolitics and social reform. When she is not traveling to promote her book, Kennedy spends time with family and friends, swims and reads. She just finished “The Great Influenza” by John M. Barry and “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers and has tried like hell to learn to knit.
“I’m left-handed,” she said. “I can’t get started and need someone to help.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org