Suzanne Fields

We've got a new poet laureate. (Who can name the last one?)

Poets can come from unlikely places. We got this one from a life-insurance company. The new poet laureate is Ted Kooser, a retired vice president of the Lincoln Benefit Life Insurance Co. in Nebraska.

"Ted Kooser is a major poetic voice for rural and small town America and the first poet laureate chosen from the Great Plains," says James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress. "His verse reaches beyond his native region to touch on universal themes in accessible ways."

Poet laureates don't get much attention from the chattering class in Washington unless they say naive things that stir up political controversy. Then they can occasionally make page one. Robert Lowell protested the Vietnam War by refusing Lyndon Johnson's invitation to the White House and became an iconic hero of the antiwar left. He made lots of front pages.

But poetry matters, and on its own terms. When I write about poetry about once a year, we're flooded with letters from readers who remember when poetry was central to their education and their lives. They're nostalgic for the days when they were required to memorize Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain," or specific verses from Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," or even entire scenes from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."

If the new poet laureate could grant my one wish, he would take up the bully pulpit for poesy and encourage teachers to bring back the rote learning of poems. It's out of fashion and that's a loss of considerable magnitude. Memorization encourages an appreciation for the sounds and rhythms of language. Youngsters are flooded with the idioms of rap, rock (hard and soft) and rock and roll, which represent their generation in slang, but they lack the discipline to understand their literary heritage as revealed in poetry.

"If there's one thing progressive educators don't like, it's rote learning," writes Michael Knox Beran in City Journal, where he examines the virtues of memorization. "As educators have known for centuries, these exercises deliver unique cognitive benefits, benefits that are of special importance for kids who come from homes where books are scarce and the level of literacy low. In addition, such exercises etch the ideals of their civilization on children's minds and hearts."

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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