Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Words to Keep Close: Poems To Learn By Heart: edited by Caroline Kennedy

"To see the world in a grain of sand,
And Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour."

As William Blake's poem intuits, poetry is a way to be transported from the concrete to the universal, to "see the world in a grain of sand."

Some poems have that power, and in her latest anthology for children, Poems to Learn by Heart (Hyperion, 2013), Caroline Kennedy's impeccable taste and well-tuned ear for lyric writing is well displayed in this newest offering, a companion book to her earlier best-selling A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children.

Kennedy's selections range historically  and stylistically from verses from the English Bible, sections from Shakespeare's sonnets and Henry V ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers..."), classic children's poems from Robert Louis Stevenson ("My Shadow") or John Updike ("May"), and those old standby classics from high school, Shelley's "Ozymandias," Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," and Kipling's "If," and into the modern poets--Langston Hughes' "Bad Morning," and Robert Frost's "A Dust of Snow." And lest we think the whole book is serious poetry, the humorous works of Shel Silverstein, Ogden Nash, and Jack Prelutsky and many others are scattered throughout the sections/

Kennedy's ear for the beauty of language shines through, particularly in her section "Prose Passages As Poem," with such diverse entries as Martin Niemoller's "First They Came for the Jews..." essay and Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address." With over 100 works selected by the editor and a team of student editors, Kennedy's collection ranges widely through time and genre, but all have the ability to touch the mind and heart while sounding memorable, whether they are spoken aloud or fall upon that inner ear, with lines that linger, begging to be learned by heart.

As with her earlier collection, Kennedy's volume is blessed with the illustrations of Caldecott artist John Muth, whose watercolor work is simultaneously both evocative and realistic and which brings home the feel of each work for all ages. An index of first lines, titles, and authors is appended for easy reference,  making  this one an essential for public and school libraries and classrooms and a long-lived treat for home collections as well.  The best-selling Poems to Learn by Heart is one not to missed. As School Library Journal adds, "Poetry is surely a many splendored thing in this richly conceived compendium of poets and ideas."



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