Articles for Teachers & Students

Caroline Kennedy on Learning Poems by Heart

Poems and teaching resources from Kennedy's new anthology.

by The Editors
Caroline Kennedy on Learning Poems by Heart

When you memorize a poem, it becomes a part of you forever. As Caroline Kennedy explains, “If we learn poems by heart, we will always have their wisdom to draw on, and we gain an understanding that no one can take away.” In Poems to Learn by Heart, Kennedy has chosen more than 100 poems that can speak to all of us.

We’ve collected some the poems from the book below, along with a guide that gives teachers everything they need to present and perform poems with their students and instill in them a lifelong love of poetry.

Teacher’s Guide to Poems to Learn by Heart [PDF]
Includes activities aligned to Common Core Standards for grades K-3, 4-6, and 7-12.

Selected Poems

Grades K-3
Don't Worry if your Job is Small” by Anonymous
Some Words Inside of Words” by Richard Wilbur

Grades 4-6
Invitation to Love” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
A Blessing” by James Wright

Grades 7-12
Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
Bilingual/Bilingüe” by Rhina Espaillat
If—” by Rudyard Kipling
Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall

Originally Published: April 3, 2013


On April 3, 2013 at 8:10pm Janet F. wrote:
My students have been learning poems by heart for over 10 years now. By the end of the year they know over 40 poems that we present at a June recital. The best part is that I have found that by sharing poems with enthusiasm, inviting the children to join in, NOT having tests, pressure or homework, that they readily and eagerly learn the poems TOGETHER. It does not take very much time and has many educational benefits: helps with reading fluency, performance, vocabulary, content knowledge, poetry basics, writing, exposure to sophisticated language construction, and leads to an interest in all kinds of poems and poets laying the ground work for future interest in poetry. Knowing poems by heart and performing them as a class builds teamwork and camaraderie. When you "carry poems in your pocket" you need never be bored! You can entertain yourselves and others and learn. Can't wait to read this book and more of the teacher support ideas on this site. THANK YOU Caroline Kennedy and The Poetry Foundation!

On April 6, 2013 at 10:22am Glenn Baker wrote:
I'm sure learning poems has huge advantages but for adults the poem must have some original appeal. I know many lines but few whole poems.

On April 12, 2013 at 8:45pm Doris B wrote:
At the age of nine, in the early fifties, one of the nuns gave me learning
poems as a punishment for my behavior. I was an active, talkative child.
Somehow, in spite of the punishment aspect, I developed a love of both
reading and writing poetry.
I'm happy to know that children are still learning poetry, but for joy and
accomplishment, not punishment.

On October 19, 2013 at 9:53am Kathleen wrote:
This book has been a wonderful portal of language and learning for
me. I already had "The Best Loved Poems of Jackie Kennedy" on my
bookshelf. But memorizing poems seemed an out of reach thing, for
the elite or the Ivy League. This book presents memorizing poems in
such an approachable way.

I started slow, learning "The Wind" by Christina Rossetti and children's
poems to say to my wee daughter. "The Shadow" by Robert Louis
Stevenson opened me up to his fabulous poems.

I have a new commute between Minneapolis and St. Paul and a job
with many demands. At first, the highway drive was so stressful. I
learned a new route by the Mississippi River and found myself reciting
my poems on the winding drive. My husband says the other drivers
must think I'm nuts, but it's not much different from singing along to
the radio. And saying the poems is such a relaxing way to
decompress after work. I've memorized a dozen or so poems, some
more complex, others for my daughter. A Seamus Heaney sad
poem, followed by "How the Leaves Came Down" mixes it up.

I only have time in my life to add one or two lines of poetry a week but
it builds and builds. I hope to memorize "Ithaka" before October is out.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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