In She Walks In Beauty, Caroline Kennedy collects poems that have inspired her at various milestones, as a daughter, a woman and a wife. She groups the poems into several categories, including falling in love, breaking up, marriage, work, death, and growing up and growing old. "I think those are times of transition in life," Kennedy tells NPR's Neal Conan.
Growing up and growing old is especially important to her at this moment. Her own children are growing into adulthood right now, and thanks to her recently celebrated 53rd birthday, she's thought a lot about growing old.
"There's so much to think about when you're becoming an adult, and there's so many great poems about that apprehension and excitement," she says. And now that she and her friends are middle aged, she's seen how this time in her life parallels that period. Growing old, she says, is also "a time of reflection and discussion and excitement, in a way, about what's to come."
Kennedy's mother, Jacqueline, was instrumental in instilling in Caroline a love of poetry. Every holiday, Caroline and her brother, Jack Jr., were asked to present a poem as a "gift" to the family. "She [still] had to buy us presents," Kennedy clarifies with a laugh. "I just want to make clear that this was a one-way deal." But Jacqueline really wanted the children to select poems they liked as their presents to her. "I think it was a wonderful way of opening up an exploration and discovery that was completely self-motivated, no homework, no pressure."
She saved the poems her children copied down for her in a scrapbook, which Caroline now has. "I think it really gave both of us a confidence that we could understand poetry, that there was nothing really to be afraid of," she says. It's a family tradition she has carried on with her own family.
As her children entered their teenage years, it got a little harder to continue the tradition. So now they make her playlists for her iPod, but they also "know that if they give a poem, that's just such a home run that they're happy to throw us a bone."
Elizabeth Alexander's work appears several times in the collection. Alexander tells Kennedy and Conan that she never thinks about how her poems will affect her readers. It "corrupts the process of writing the poem," she says, "which after all, is a process of going very deeply within to terrain that even we don't know what it's going to turn up when we go excavating." Then, she says, audiences find "what they will" in it.
Crossroads in life are especially rich territory for poets to mine, says Alexander. Those moments "call for distilled language with which to mark those moments, with which to remember."
Alexander echoes the Kennedys' call not to fear poetry. "Everywhere," she says, "people are finding that to have heightened language that they can hold on to in the middle of their lives is something profoundly human, and ancient, actually." Sometimes the best words are simple words, but poets put them into "a small jewel" for readers.
Poems can even make ordinary moments seem extraordinary, adds Kennedy. "They bring emotion and they bring history and they bring wisdom or insight or clarity," says Kennedy, "and really can transform our daily life."