Jackie O.'s posthumous poetry blockbuster.

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March 20 2002 12:21 PM

Jackie Kennedy's Ride

The first lady's posthumous poetry blockbuster.

Book cover

The staggering success of The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—it has sold more than half a million copies in the last five months—might well inspire cynicism. It used to be a publishing joke that a book on Lincoln's doctor's dog would be a guaranteed best seller, since Lincoln, dogs, and medicine are perennially popular. Today, one could certainly add all things Kennedy to the list, and there's no doubt that the double dose of Kennedy this book provides (it is edited by Caroline Kennedy) is responsible for much of its popularity. But at a time when a best-selling book of new poetry tops out at around 10,000 copies, there must be something more than just mystique at work here. It looks like there's a much bigger public ready, even eager, for poetry, as long as it is the kind of poetry one might associate with Jackie: that is, romantic, patriotic, traditional, and elegant.

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What is most surprising about The Best-Loved Poems is not that it meets all those expectations but that it does so while also assembling a remarkably good group of poems. In fact, this is just the kind of anthology America needs if poetry is ever again to become widely read and loved. The poems found here are almost all rhymed and metered, most are from canonical authors (including a number from Shakespeare and the Bible), and they treat major, accessible themes. Unlike academic anthologies, the book is organized around subjects: "America" first, then poems for children, poems of adventure and escape, love poems, and finally poems of contemplation. All this is designed to make the poems accessible, as Caroline Kennedy writes, to "children ... readers just starting out on their own, and ... those who have never really thought poetry was for them."

That last group is the overwhelming majority of readers today, and the reason for this alienation from poetry is not far to seek. It is not simply, or even mainly, the "difficulty" of contemporary poetry. (As the poet Randall Jarrell once wrote, people who complain about the difficulty of modern poetry give the impression that they settle down in front of the fire at night with Racine or William Blake.) Rather, it is the loss of poetry reading and recitation in childhood, whether at home or in school. A public that has not memorized traditional poems—classics or even second-rate standards like "Paul Revere's Ride"—cannot be expected to appreciate the gross or subtle rebellions against tradition that define modern poetry. That public needs an authoritative (but nonspecialist) source of poems that are interesting and musical, that can become part of one's mental life.

Jackie is the perfect choice. Not only is she an emblem of sophistication, but her husband's presidency was showily welcoming to the arts—thanks in no small part to her influence. Robert Frost read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration and hailed "a golden age of poetry and power"; at a White House dinner in 1962, with Robert Lowell, Saul Bellow, and Arthur Miller in the audience, Kennedy joked that "this is becoming a sort of eating place for artists." It's not clear exactly how much Jackie Kennedy's tastes figure in the selection—some of the poems were her choices for White House readings, others she read to her children, and still others may simply "reflect things that were important to her," as Caroline Kennedy says in her introduction.

But the book is convincing as the choice of someone who received a good conventional education in the 1920s and 1930s. There's not much modern poetry here: one poem by Wallace Stevens, one by William Carlos Williams (the inevitable wheelbarrow), some romantic lyrics by W.B. Yeats and E.E. Cummings, nothing by T.S. Eliot. Modern here means the robust balladeers of the 1900s, Rudyard Kipling and John Masefield and Alfred Noyes—old-fashioned now, but in their day a rebellion against the dreamy nature poetry of the Victorians. Masefield's "Cargoes" shows the strengths and limits of this kind of poetry:

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood and sweet white wine.

This is picturesque—and superficial—in a way that might bore a reader looking for depth and subtlety of language. But it has a rousing rhythm, exciting exotic properties, and (in the last stanza) a rather effective piece of social commentary, contrasting these magical ships with the ugly, banal cargoes of 20th-century England. What's more, it's the kind of poem that leads beyond itself: It makes an inexperienced reader want to find out about Nineveh and Palestine.

She will need to turn to her Bible, of course, since the Bible was once the common wellspring of poetry. Jackie Kennedy belonged to a generation that no longer read the Bible as literal Scripture but still felt for its rhythms and images a literary reverence; and this book doesn't hesitate to pick out "poems" from the Song of Songs, the Beatitudes, and Corinthians. Shakespeare, too, is extracted: speeches from Richard III and Romeo and Juliet and several sonnets. Reading them piecemeal is not the most authentic way to experience either the Bible or Shakespeare, but it is a necessary introduction: It gives you the flavor and rhythm of the language and urges you to go on to discover more.

Patriotism is a deeply unfashionable subject for poetry today, and for good reason. The poem that Robert Frost wrote for the inauguration, included here, is sanctimonious doggerel. Nor is "America the Beautiful" immortal verse, though it deserves its place as a semi-official document. But Jackie's taste was adventurous enough to include poems that make the idea of America genuine by challenging it: Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" and Langston Hughes's "Let America Be America Again." Even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" earns its place here: It is one of the few touchstones of American poetry, and it reminds us that verse can be used for narrative as well as reflection.

In fact, the only really dull poems in the book are those in the section for children. It's hard to imagine a child who would not be bored or offended by Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Swing":

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