Andrew Motion, poet laureate of the U.K., is upset about the lack of attention given to writing poetry in British secondary schools.
Oy, if he only knew! In the U.S. we rarely even read poetry in the schools. And we almost never memorize poetry. I remember memorizing just one poem in the fourth grade--Robert Frost's "After Apple Picking". Russian or French children memorize volumes of verse and a good line is always at the tip of the tongue. I know that most educators are against rote memorization and for good reason. But the reading and memorization of poetry does provide some important intellectual benefits to kids, including:
1. a more intuitive knowledge and feeling of language
2. a history of their own language and literature
3. shared cultural knowledge
4. fun with language!
5. the desire to read poetry as adults.
I think #5 is most important. Most American adults do not sit down and read volumes of poetry. I know I don't. I'm a prose girl all the way. There is still time for the youngsters. And they don't need to read Keats, Shakespeare, and Byron as first graders. There's tons of great poetry for children--Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Carol Diggory Shields are just a few talented poets who have written funny, memorable verse for kids.
Teachers and poets have obviously been thinking about this issue because there are some great resources for teaching poetry out there including Poetry for Children and Poets.org.
Oh, wait. I remember one more poem (or poet) I had to memorize. When I was in second grade, my parents taught in Scotland on a teacher exchange program. We had to memorize a Burns poem for Halloween. In Scotland you actually had to have a trick to get a treat!