by Sam Juliano
There’s no getting around it. Caroline Kennedy’s recently-released collection Poems to Learn by Heart breathes life into a literary genre has has lost some relevance in an age of i-phones and college curriculums that have cut back on classes examining poetry. Caroline Kennedy traces her own affection for poetry back to her own reading sessions with her grandmother Rose Kennedy, who purportedly quizzed them on American history and some of the story poems that captures specific events. One, Longfellow’s beloved “Paul Revere’s Ride” was a favorite of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, who recited the marathon poem at public events. The tradition of reading poems as a family though, goes back to Jacqueline Bouvier, who met with her grandfather at least once a week to examine and recite the classics. The love for poetry was also evident at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration when he looked to Robert Frost for inspiration. Caroline herself of course published the volume A Family of Poems, a 2005 best-seller, one in which she collaborated with ace illustrator Jon J. Muth.
She and Muth again teamed up for this new volume of poetry, and the work represents some of the finest work the illustrator has ever done in a career that already has amassed some picture book classics. Muth’s magnificent Zen Shorts won a Caldecott Honor in 2006, and the talented illustrator moved on to some other distinguished picture books such Blowin’ in the Wind, a pictorial rendition of the Bob Dylan treasure, and the moving City Dog Country Frog, a collaboration with Mo Willems. Muth’s work brings fresh new visualizations to some venerated poems that date back hundreds of years. Poems by Tennyson, Shakespeare, Beckett, Chaucer, Shelley, Melville, Lincoln, Browning, Crane, Dickinson, Melville and many others are given some lovely new clothes that vividly broaden and accentuate the various interpretations, and offer the art lover some glorious watercolor paintings in this vast 200 page book that is aimed more for the higher middle school and Jr. High School students. Indeed, this collection could not be appreciated by the youngest, even if the illustrations would still captivate the gifted students in the lower age group.
The volume’s magical cover is taken from page 74, where Robert Graves’ “Id Love to Be a Fairy’s Child” is printed. Some of the most famous writings ever created are also on these pages: The famed Crispin’s Day speech from the Bard’s Henry V, Lincoln’s “Gettsyburg Address,” a passage from Ovid’s The Metamorphosis, and the General Prologue from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. An obvious favorite of Kennedy’s is Robert Louis Stevenson, who is represented in this collection repeatedly. The poems are arranged by themes, and total an even 100. There are rhymed poems and free-verse poems, “girl” poems and “boy” poems, the latter including Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Slam, Dunk, & Hook,” Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” and the former by Caroll’s Through a Looking Glass. Some of the poems are light and carefree, while others explore some of the darkest themes, including wars and the Holocaust. The use of the excerpts from some of literature’s most celebrated works gives the collection some philosophical heft, even if such a decision was sure to keep this volume with the older kids.
Some of own favorite marriages of words to illustration include a double page spread on Jonson’s The Masque of Queens, Ogden Nash’s “The Tale of Custard the Dragon,” and “The Lesson” by Billy Collins. But there is a unity here that makes it difficult to choose the spreads that stand out most. This is a diverse tapestry that brings into disparate seasons, terrains, countries, time periods and settings and it both engages the mind while peppering one’s sense of art appreciation with some extraordinary and expressionistic art. It’s so good in fact that it will enhance the poetry experience for most. There is a bleak undercurrent in the meditative “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens, a grotesque specter hanging over Prelutsky’s “Herbert Glerbert” and some irresistible humor in Neal Levin’s “Baby Ate a Microchip.” Caroline Kennedy has some great taste in poetry and poets, and though I might quibble the absence of favorites like “The Highwayman” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” who could argue with this collection. Simply put, it’s a treasure.
Note: This is the first in a series that will examine (mostly) exceptional non-American picture books released over the past year, and some others like today’s posting- that well warrant inclusion in the series. Though a good number of the reviews will appear on Saturdays, this won’t be exclusive.