Three weeks ago several million PBS viewers watched Jim Lehrer on camera as he asked Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky the question, "Do children still memorize poems the way we used to in school?"
As many of those viewers will recall, Mr. Pinsky shrugged the question away and went smilingly on to describe the heart-warming letters he had been getting in connection with the Library of Congress "Favorite Poem" project.
The reason for Pinsky's refusal to answer Mr. Lehrer's question can fairly be summed up in one phrase: memory-unfriendly poetry. Most modern poetry today, especially the kind that wins prizes and gets government grants, simply can't be memorized by schoolchildren. Pinsky, therefore, wisely chose to stay clear of the "m" word (memorization) out of deference to his poetry-establishment colleagues - including those who run our nation's big-enrollment, big- budget creative-writing programs.
Small wonder today students shun Chaucer and literature courses in favor of writing their own poetry. Lacking clear-cut patterns of meter and rhyme, it's easy to write - "like playing tennis without a net," as Robert Frost once described it. Unfortunately the absence of those patterns makes modern poetry very difficult to memorize, as indicated by the fact that our most distinguished poets now insist on "reading" their memory-unfriendly words of passion and fire from a piece of paper or a book or a teleprompter.
But traditional poems, as many of us will recall, were designed for do-it-yourself memorability. A middle school student, for example, still needs only an hour to learn a Shakespearean sonnet, where the same number of modern-poetry words calls for at least three hours of rote effort. …