CAMBRIA, CALIF. — 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.
Even today, as indicated by Lehrer's question, do-it-yourself memorizing offers American schoolchildren a splendid concentration exercise and a permanent possession in one's own mind, along with a major step - via recitation - toward public-speaking confidence. Where writing poetry calls for talent, learning it by heart is nonelitist and open to all, including low-level students who are willing to invest our greatest nonelitist resource - time.
America's memory-unfriendly poetry, some may argue, may well be linked with the imperatives of artistic progress. So Poet Laureate Pinsky's loyalty to his craft deserves respect, even at the price of a little public evasiveness.
But America is also, right now, a nation where people are worrying more and more about memory loss, judging from the TV ads. Since our poetry establishment, including government officials like Pinsky, has been successful in killing off the "m" word during the last 30 years, why shouldn't we blame them for our decreasing development in memory ability? Or even, like Plato, drive them away from the public trough and its largess?
Perhaps like Chaucer, our poets should start apologizing for the moral and intellectual damage they have done in their "translacions and endytings of worldly vanities." If not, they can hardly blame posterity for forgetting their names, along with their words.
*Robert Oliphant is executive director of Californians for Community College Equity.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society