“If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a better place in which to live.” ~ John F. Kennedy
“Writing helps you to express your deepest feelings. Once you can express yourself you can tell the world what you want from it or how you would like to change it. All the changes in the world, for good or evil, were first brought about by words.” ~ Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was little, she’d visit her grandfather every Wednesday after dance lessons. Do you know what they did together? Memorized poetry.
In her preface to The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (Hyperion, 2001), Caroline Kennedy says, “One of the greatest gifts my brother and I received from my mother was her love of literature and language.”
Their family tradition was to choose or compose, then write out and illustrate, a poem for their mother each holiday and birthday. These were saved in a big scrapbook (wouldn’t you just love to see it), and some of JFK, Jr.’s, and Caroline’s selections are included in the anthology.
As I read through the poems, I gained a good sense of Jackie’s sensibility. Her taste in poetry — e.e. cummings, Countee Cullen, Robert Frost, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Yeats, to name a few, was as flawless and refined as her taste in fashion, interior design, and music. Though I had read many of these classic poems before, this time they somehow felt more intimate and significant, knowing they were personal favorites of someone I’ve long admired.
Today I’d like to share the one poem in the collection that resonated the most for me, given the present political, social, and economic climate in America. It seems almost prophetic, as we struggle to regain some of the hope, vitality, and unity that we’ve somehow lost. The Kennedy White House was magical and exciting; the young President and his family inspired, delighted, and engaged Americans, reminded us why we were here, made us want to do more, and above all, made us believe in the possibility of better things.
In 1953, the year she married John F. Kennedy, Jackie wrote this poem, which she would present to him on their first anniversary. He was a young Senator from Massachusetts, and she seemed to know, even then, that he was destined for greatness.
MEANWHILE IN MASSACHUSETTS
by Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy
Meanwhile in Massachusetts Jack Kennedy dreamed
Walking the shore by the Cape Cod Sea
Of all the things he was going to be.
He breathed in the tang of the New England fall
And back in his mind he pictured it all,
The burnished New England countryside
Names that a patriot says with pride
Concord and Lexington, Bunker Hill
Plymouth and Falmouth and Marstons Mill
Winthrop and Salem, Lowell, Revere
Quincy and Cambridge, Louisburg Square.
This was his heritage — this was his share
Of dreams that a young man harks in the air.
The past reached out and tracked him now
He would heed that touch; he didn’t know how.
Part he must serve, a part he must lead
Both were his calling, both were his need.
Part he was of New England stock
As stubborn, close guarded as Plymouth Rock
He thought with his feet most firm on the ground
But his heart and his dreams were not earthbound
He would call New England his place and his creed
But part he was of an alien breed
Of a breed that had laughed on Irish hills
And heard the voices in Irish rills.
The lilt of that green land danced in his blood
Tara, Killarney, a magical flood
That surged in the depth of his too proud heart
And spiked the punch of New England so tart
Men would call him thoughtful, sincere
They would not see through to the Last Cavalier.
He turned on the beach and looked toward his house.
On a green lawn his white house stands
And the wind blows the sea grass low on the sands
There his brothers and sisters have laughed and played
And thrown themselves to rest in the shade.
The lights glowed inside, soon supper would ring
And he would go home where his father was King.
But now he was here with the wind and the sea
And all the things he was going to be.
He would build empires
And he would have sons
Others would fall
Where the current runs
He would find love
He would never find peace
For he must go seeking
The Golden Fleece
All of the things he was going to be
All of the things in the wind and the sea.
(Inspired by “John Brown’s Body” by Stephen Vincent Benet)
Photo credit: InSearchofKennedy.com
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28 thoughts on “friday feast: what jackie knew”
I love thinking of her with her grandfather after dance lessons. I wonder if there’s a picture of the two of them?
I am speechless. Thank you!
My mom and uncle used to compose poems or parody song lyrics (ie Gilbert and Sullivan) on my grandparents’ birthdays, although it wasn’t necessarily every year – and they were usually meant to be silly, not the dignified poem Jackie wrote. That was lovely.
Wow. It moved me to tears.
There might be in the Kennedy Library archives, or perhaps even in one of the biographies (which I haven’t read). And yes, I love picturing the two of them reading aloud and sharing poems!
You’re very welcome. Glad the poem resonated for you today.
What a great tradition, celebrating words, silly or profound, between the generations!
I also read that Jackie often provided JFK with literary quotes/poetry excerpts to use in his speeches.
That opening JFK quote is a stunner. If a politician were to say that today or even merely MENTION poetry, he or she would get accused of being too lofty, too intellectual. What happened to us? Sigh.
Palin fans would ask, “What’s poetry?”
TadMack says: 🙂
All that love and devotion and belief in him and dreams — even before he started.
(Unfortunately, the next thing I think of is, “And he cheated on her?” Sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry, I know that’s not what I was supposed to think.)
It did. And I’ve always loved Jackie.
Re: TadMack says: 🙂
I think I read somewhere that she was well aware of his womanizing ways before she married him, and seemed to accept that as part of the package.
wonderful quotes and pictures and writing — ah, send me away — thank you for the voyage back in time. Not that things were perfect then, but…
so we’ll have to include the Kennedy Library on your Massachusetts vacation. A friend and I went to see the exhibit of, what else, Jackie’s old dresses there, a few years ago. It was mobbed!
I’ve been tasting all these tidbits here and there of Presidents and First Ladies, and it’s really made me want to read so much more in depth about the most fascinating ones.
Yes, you’re right — things weren’t perfect then, but compared to now?
Those gowns sounds interesting :). Kind of like the First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian (men always roll their eyes).
Wow. The year they married? That blows me away. But also…how must it have felt to know this is who you had married, that this…person who saw themselves as a moment along a past-present-future ideal…was your husband. What must it have felt like she walked into.
I don’t know that I could have done it.
Perhaps Jackie was used to this brand of “greatness,” having been born into wealth and privilege. I don’t think she found life with him intimidating at all (sadness, loneliness, and jealousy are whole other things).
I think you’re probably right–I’m sure it was something she almost expected. I don’t think she’d have been intimidated, but I think the loneliness, yes…that must have been huge. I think it comes through in the poem amazingly. It’s a beautiful poem. I’m not a big poetry reader, but I may have to take a look at this book.
She’s on my to-do list!
You’re right. Boy, would I ever love to see that scrapbook!
I had no idea! Thanks for posting this. It is so evident in the poem how much Jackie had already read.
To answer, “What is poetry?” there is a lovely prose piece with that title I have on a cassette tape of Carl Sandburg. I am hoping to find it on CD so that more people can hear it.
Re: Jackie ROCKS!
Glad to hear it :)!
It’s probably in a museum somewhere, or even part of the Presidential Library archives.
Oh yes, that would be interesting!
I like that quote about poetry and politics. Thanks for posting it.
Caroline Kennedy’s poetry anthology is a fine book. I love Muth’s illustrations in it.
Enjoy your weekend.
Re: Kennedy Quote
I haven’t yet seen Caroline’s anthology of children’s poems. I love Jon Muth, so I imagine it’s well worth checking out.
Interesting. How cool would that be to have a tradition like that and be able to see all those years of creativity in one place.
BTW, I think Jackie O. has become some sort of weird rating system (at least for young college boys here). I was in the elevator with 3 of them recently and they were rating girls. Each one was the Jackie O. of ______. One was the Jackie O. of high fives!? And then they started rating looks and things, which was uncomfortable. I got off the elevator thinking that they probably don’t know much about who Jackie was or what she looked like. To them, she was just a pop culture reference to use as a rating system. Weird, huh?
Hope they get interested enough in her to find out more.
The Jackie O. rating system is indeed interesting! I wonder how widespread it is. She’s such an icon that I guess she somehow works her way into lots of things, pop culture included. It’s good to know she’s held up as a gold standard :).
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