Poetry on the Potomac

Posted: Aug 19, 2004 12:00 AM

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."

When we revered the ideal of America as the melting pot, generations of immigrant children learned to speak the same language, memorizing poems that marked common reference points. This brought us all together in the new land. Memorizing a poem was a great equalizer because it focused on the sounds of the English language, enabling the struggle to understand the meanings of the words. Adolescents delighted in calling on quotes from Shakespeare to suit the occasion. When troubled over a rejection of the heart, a smitten lad might recite, in mock hyperbole, "To be or not to be." In fact, Hamlet's entire soliloquy was often committed to memory.

Any parent who reads Dr. Seuss to young children discovers how quickly youngsters mimic and memorize the funny combination of sounds: "Mr. Brown can moo. Can you moo like I moo?" Many of these same parents balk at the idea of rote memorization when their children get to school, unable to see how it encourages mental agility. Educationists support this attitude with ridiculous notions that memorization stifles creativity, inhibits free expression and encourages attitudes of rigidity and servility.

Current intellectual fashions that challenge the value of memorizing come from esoteric and fashionable literary theorists who subscribe to "constructivism," ideas stemming from Jean Piaget, the Swiss child psychologist, who insists that there is no such thing as "objective knowledge" and that children should "construct" knowledge for themselves. Memorization in this formulation deprives children of independent thinking and self-discovery. Anyone who grew up memorizing at least one Shakespeare sonnet, or even "Cat in the Hat," recognizes this notion as absurd.

Some critics blame the electronic age as contributing to the failure of poetry to entice. Yet the "favorite poem project" of the Library of Congress enables us to listen to poets read their poems in cyberspace. How many teachers know how to take advantage of these wonderful readings?

In this summer of our discontent, when we are forced to hear lots of hot air pretending to be genuine rhetoric, listening to a poet or memorizing a favorite verse or two would be welcome and refreshing. We could start with a simple stanza written by Ted Kooser, our new poet laureate, contemplating "starlight" in all its wonder:

All night, this soft rain from
The distant past.
No wonder I sometimes
Waken as a child.