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Poetry Out Loud Outloud Outloud Aloud Aloud Aloud Aloud
I judged the Poetry Out Loud high school recitation contest (organized by the NEA and the Poetry Foundation) for the second year in a row last week. First the Maine Southern Regionals at the Portland Stage Company’s theater, then the Maine State Finals at the gemlike Camden Opera House, where Edna St. Vincent Millay had her high school graduation. A few of the same high school students competed this year as last year, sometimes, I suspect, with the same poems. And there was basically the same combination of styles: a bit of stiff nineteenth-century recitation, a bit of simultaneously laidback and angry slam energy, a bit of over-the-top dramatic acting—and some performances that transcended all these. And just like last year, for all the range and effort of the performances, the real star of the show—as is fitting—was the poetry itself.
Where else but at Poetry Out Loud do contemporary poetry audiences get to sit back and listen, live, to two versions of “The Arrow and the Song,” one with gesticulation and one without, two very different and equally moving renditions of Brook’s”,” a tearjerking “O Captain, My Captain,” and a daringly searching interpretation of Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud“? Where else would I have heard live performance of what turned out to be my favorite two pieces this year, Eliot’s long “Preludes” in a flawlessly spellbinding version, and “When I was Fair and Young” by Queen Elizabeth I delivered with skillful archness? I can honestly say there was something to enjoy in every single performance.
Of course, some poems lend themselves better to performance than others. The poems written in strong slam-like rhythm or regular meter seemed to have an exhilirating effect on the audience, and the students tended to temper their reading style for such poems, focusing attention on the poem itself and not on their delivery of it. Free verse monologues, on the other hand, brought out more “acting” on the part of the students, whether it was dramatic acting or stand-up comic acting—and, to complicate matters, NEA guidelines explicitly and, I think, rightly, discourage students from too much acting.
I did have a couple of suggestions that I passed along. I wondered whether anyone had considered limiting the list of eligible poems to U.S. poems only; while non-U.S. poets would be missed, it is a national contest after all, and this policy would help educate students and audience about U.S. poetry while making room for more of the many great U.S. poems that are missing from the repertoire. I also thought the NEA should encourage music, performed live by a high school classical or jazz ensemble, between the rounds.
I remember decades ago when this project was just a gleam in the eye of the now-ex-chair of the NEA. This year, 2700 highschoolers participated in Maine alone. The program seems poised to continue long into the future, a powerful legacy, a generous act of faith in the ability of poetry to live off the page, to entertain and inspire audiences (a theme of many threads on Harriet lately), and to connect the poetic present, past, and future. Bravo to the NEA and its partner, Harriet’s own Poetry Foundation, for making this National Recitation Project happen and doing it so well. I would recommend anyone who enjoys poetry to attend next year’s regional or state finals in your own state and cheer on your favorites. Prepare to be reminded why poetry has survived around the globe for so many millenia.