T.S. Eliot once wrote in the opening line of his great poem, The Waste Land, that “April is the cruelest month.” How keenly and acutely we felt that cruelty this spring after such a long, hard winter.
On this last day of April, however, we prefer to enter Merry May on a warm, gentle note, “digging into” an assortment of poetry in celebration and recognition of April as the official “National Month of Poetry.”
For an inspired offering, we turn to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ collection of poems, published by her daughter Caroline, that we have come to value as a real “treasure” for their strength, comfort, beauty and nourishment.
“All the changes in the world, for good and evil, were first brought about by words,” Mrs. Kennedy once wrote.
As a lifelong lover of literature, especially poetry, Jackie O became well acquainted with words at a young age, when she would visit her grandfather once a week after dance lessons to memorize poems together – many of which are recorded in her collection.
From patriotic verses and children’s rhymes to those of love and romance, escape and adventure, her selection of “favorite” poems encompass the range of emotions we experience in life, revealing the beauty, wisdom and inspiration that can be found in the world around us.
Letting her collection of poetry speak for itself, she no doubt found great solace, comfort and power in the words of these poems while she traveled through her life as a public figure, experiencing both exalting joys and tragic sorrows.
Mrs. Kennedy would go on to pass her love of language and poetry on to her children, who were encouraged to memorize and recite poems at a young age – the importance of which is reflected in these words: “Once you can express yourself, you can tell the world what you want from it or how you would like to change it.”
The several books of poetry that Caroline Kennedy has published over the years (our favorite being The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 2001) is a testament to the lasting influence that poetry and literature have had on her life.
As Caroline writes in the introduction, it is not enough to just read poetry – we must memorize it:
“Poets distill life’s lessons into the fewest possible words. But those tiny packages of thought contain worlds of images and experiences and feeling. If our circumstances change and things seem to be falling apart, we can recall a poem that reassures us. If we learn poems by heart, we will always have their wisdom to draw on, and we gain understanding that no one can take away.”
And it is on that note that we share some of our favorite poems (for you to share and memorize!), hoping that they offer the same comfort, strength and understanding they brought to a woman of lasting influence:
Youth, Day, Old Age and Night
by Walt Whitman (American, 1819-1892)
*We like this poem for the image of youth it portrays, capturing the power and energy of being young.
Youth, large, lusty, loving – youth full of grace, force, fascination
Do you know that Old Age may come after you with equal grace,
Day full-blown and splendid – day of the immense sun, action,
The Night follows close with millions of suns, and sleep and
by Emily Dickinson (American, 1830-1886; wrote nearly 1,800 poems throughout her lifetime)
If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
Afternoon on a Hill
by Edna St. Vincent Millay (American, 1892-1950)
*Always a favorite!
I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.
I will look at cliffs and clouds
With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
And the grass rise.
And when lights begin to show
Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
And then start down!
by Constantine P. Cavafy (Egyptian, 1863-1933)
*A modern Greek poet (1863-1933) who “drew heavily on the ancient myths and history in his work,” we love the spirit of adventure captured in this poem.
When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge…
Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets…
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches…
…And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what these Ithacas mean.
by John Masefield (once the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, 1878-1967)
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking
And a gray mist on the sea’s face and a gray dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;…
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
by Alfred Lord Tennyson (English, 1809-1892)
*We share this for our love of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey.
Come, my friend
It’s not too late
to seek a newer world…
Though much is taken,
…that which we are, we are –
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Made weak by time and fate,
But strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find
and not to yield…
Put Something In
by Shel Silverstein (American, 1930-1999)
*Shel Silverstein is one of our favorite children’s poets for his fun, silly, lyrical poems.
Draw a crazy picture,
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-gumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
‘Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain’t been there before.
by Shel Silverstein (American, 1930-1999)
If we meet and I say, “Hi,”
That’s a salutation.
If you ask me how I feel,
If we stop and talk awhile,
That’s a conversation.
If we understand each other,
If we argue, scream and fight,
That’s an altercation.
If later we apologize,
If we help each other home,
And all these ations added up
Baby Ate a Microchip
by Neal Levin (from Caroline Kennedy’s Poems to Learn by Heart collection)
Baby ate a microchip,
Then grabbed a bottle, took a sip.
He swallowed it and made a beep,
And now he’s thinking pretty deep.
He’s downloading his ABCs
And calculating 1-2-3s.
He’s memorizing useless facts
While doing Daddy’s income tax.
He’s processing, and now he thrives
On feeding his internal drives.
He’s throwing fits, and now he fights
With ruthless bits and toothless bytes.
He must be feeling very smug.
But hold on, Baby caught a bug.
Attempting to reboot in haste,
He accidentally got erased!
To Be Of Use
by Marge Piercy
*An American poet, 1936-present, who developed a love of books when she came down with rheumatic fever in her childhood and could do little else but read. She once said, “It taught me that there’s a different world there, that there were all these horizons that were quite different from what I could see.”
The people I love best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes out of sight…
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again…
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident,
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.
by Robert Louis Stevenson (Scottish, 1850-1894)
The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
*We end with a poem that offers words of strength, comfort and encouragement in the face of challenges.
When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all up hill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must – but don’t you quit.
Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As everyone of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don’t give up, though the pace seems slow –
You might succeed with another blow.
Often the goal is nearer than
It seems to a faint and faltering man,
Often the struggler has given up
When he might have captured the victor’s cup,
And he learned too late, when the night slipped down,
How close he was to the golden crown.
Success is failure turned inside out –
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt –
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems afar;
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit –
It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit.
2 thoughts on “Digging Deep in the Garden of Poetry”
I love love love these poems! It makes me want to dig through my bookshelf and find all my flagged and underlined favorites. For now, I will say that that beautiful, simple line from “Ulysses” – “though much is taken, much abides” – has been a kind of mantra for me as life speeds onward. I entirely agree with the value of memorizing poetry; I have memorized a handful of poems that have moved me and I call on them for strength, beauty, or simply as a way to quiet the brain. I will refrain from squeezing all my favorite poems into this comment…
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I thought your comment about poetry helping to quiet the brain is so true. So glad you enjoyed the poetry!