Thursday, February 11, 2010

Poetry Out Loud

Last night I had the distinct privilege of serving as a judge for the Palmer High School Poetry Out Loud competition. Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation contest, was founded in 2006 by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. I've been aware of the program for several years, but I didn't get to actually experience it until last year at COPPeR and the Chamber's Business and Arts Luncheon, where Colorado state champion (and Palmer High School student) Kaleena Kovach stole the show with her moving recitation of a Margaret Atwood poem. It's not easy to captivate a room full of 300+ business people, but this 17-year-old did just that, and left the room hungry for more. As one luncheon attendee put it, "I am still amazed that the highlights were local opera singers and teen aged poetry performers."

Last night's competition was brief, with only three competitors, but there was a decent crowd of people to support the contestants, and the evening was carefully and lovingly executed, including incidental music. There were five judges: Aaron Anstett, the reigning Pikes Peak Poet Laureate, Jim Ciletti, poet extraordinaire and owner of Hooked on Books, Slam Poetry Mistess Karen Sucharski, Molly Gross, co-director of the Colorado College Writing Center and candidate for an MFA in poetry at Bennington, and yours truly. The reciters were of varying ability, but all were enthusiastic. The coach, Heather Brown, has done a phenomenal job of inspiring her students to appreciate poetry. But after my experience last night, I think she's gone beyond that; in fact, she has given each of her students a truly profound gift.

My grandfather was born in 1903. One summer when he was well in his eighties, we went on afternoon walks almost daily. On these walks, he told me all about his education in the small town in Texas, where he grew up on a farm. He went to a one-room school and eventually worked his way up to earning a scholarship to Oberlin. One of his favorite memories, and thus one of the stories he liked to tell again and again, was how his teacher required him to memorize poems. Numerous poems. Later, as his health declined and he became more senile, he had trouble remembering how to complete simple tasks. But he never forgot a poem. Those poems that he was forced to memorize in that little schoolhouse gave him a sense of peace that could never be taken away.

I was reminded of my grandfather last night. Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Carl Sandburg, which I'd read on the page many times years ago in class, came alive. It was as if by hearing them so lovingly recited, I was able to truly understand the poems, without having to parse or dissect them. It took the labor out of poetry appreciation and left all the joy.

One of the goals of Poetry Out Loud is to help students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage. But they also gain fundamental understanding of individual poems and they will take those poems with them for the rest of their lives. For lack of a more poetic way to say it, that is just really, really cool.

Want to learn more about Poetry Out Loud? Click here.

For your enjoyment, one of the poems from last night's competition.

The Cities Inside Us by Alberto Rios

We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.

We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.

They are our words.
They come from very far inside our mouths.

You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us

There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people

We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are

But which used to be as well. This is where
They went. They did not disappear.

We each take a piece
Through the eye and through the ear.

It's loud inside us, in there, and when we speak
In the outside world

We have to hope that some of that sound
Does not come out, that an arm

Not reach out
In place of the tongue.

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