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Review: She Walks in Beauty

Caroline Kennedy’s selection of poems, She Walks in Beauty, is surprising for many reasons. But the success of the book — which is No. 6 on the independent booksellers list — isn’t one of them.

books Updated: Apr 27, 2011 07:23 IST

Caroline Kennedy’s selection of poems, 

She Walks in Beauty

, is surprising for many reasons. But the success of the book — which is No. 6 on the independent booksellers list — isn’t one of them.

Kennedy, who has written or edited seven other bestsellers, always demonstrates a keen understanding of her audience and subject matter. Here, that means deep insights into womanhood and poetry, and the connection between them. Her delightful commentary holds readers’ attention from the opening lines of the introduction: “This book began around the time I turned fifty. Like my friends who had been there before me, I dreaded it for months, and was relieved when it was over and life seemed much the same as before.”

That admission allows Kennedy to create a shared experience with readers, before she shows how poetry creates common ground as well. The book’s 13 sections explore various facets of womanhood, from love and motherhood to work, beauty and clothes, and growing old. Kennedy introduces each subject with an appealing blend of personal anecdotes and helpful observations about the poems, which range from well-known work by Elizabeth Bishop to relatively new verse by Joyce Sutphen, among others.

Then she lets the poems speak for themselves. And speak they do, with voices that are sometimes classic, sometimes modern. In 'Breaking Up,' the third section of poems, Dorothy Parker tells a woman that by the time she and a lover swear undying passion, Lady, make a note of this:­ / One of you is lying. Several pages later, Emily Dickinson explains that Parting is all we know of heaven, / And all we need of hell.

Both poems convey an archetypal truth, as does “Bra Shopping,” in which Parneshia Jones describes the embarrassment of “still growing accustomed to these two new welts.” Rita Dove, in Chocolate, explains that or a taste of you / any woman would gladly / crumble to ruin.

Kennedy knows when to change styles or moods so that these pieces feel fresh and broaden the audience’s exposure to the genre. Some sections are so strong that women ranging from 20 to 90 could appreciate and enjoy the poems. Other times — as in the 'Work' section — the writing seems dated.

For Kennedy, She Walks in Beauty began with the poems in How to Live, the final section. Novice readers may want to start there, too, because the poems are so accessible. In From a Letter to His Daughter, Ralph Waldo Emerson advises, Finish every day and be done with it. / You have done what you could.

That’s good counsel, but publishers might want to ask themselves if they’ve done all they could with their anthologies. As Kennedy has shown again, the right editor and guide can lead many readers into poetry’s vital yet often-overlooked landscape.

Lund was the poetry editor for the Christian Science Monitor.