Remember Poetry Out Loud last year? The national high school contest of reciting poetry? How my student Will won states and we went to Washington D.C together for Nationals in April?
Well. Our 2010 school-wide Poetry Out Loud contest was held in January, and 72 students recited poems during our all-day contest. It was wonderful. I could go on and on (and on) about this program, but I'll just tell you that our students end up spending a few weeks in class, and then one full day experiencing poetry in a way that totally surprises them. They think they hate poetry, that it is a means of torture, that all one does with poetry is try to analyze it.
And then they sit in the auditorium all day listening to their friends and peers, who are nervous, reciting a poem on stage. And they just get to listen, and appreciate, and cheer. And they notice that poems are interpreted differently by different people, and they are able to tell you whether or not the student delivered it with the right tone, gestures, and emphasis. They are able to articulate when they thought a poem should have been delivered with less drama, more humor, less angst, more humility. They say, "I would have done that last line differently." "I think that poem is really about love, and so it should have been softer." Or, "Hearing how she recited that poem made me understand it so much more clearly." They also say: "That was the best day I've ever had at school." In other words, they are analyzing poetry for 6 hours straight and having a hell of a time doing it.
This is my 3rd year running the contest, and we had the biggest group of participants yet. As a result, we asked for an outside panel of judges to choose the winner. Will, now a senior, participated again. I felt like, after spending so much time coaching Will and going to DC with him, that I didn't want to be responsible for deciding if he would represent our school again. So, we had 4 poets/ professors come in, and they unanimously chose Will as the winner, again.
Will then went on to the Northern Regionals in Ellsworth, and won a top 5 spot out of 14. This Friday, he goes to States in Waterville. And I'm really excited about it.
Last week, Will and I were contacted by a woman at the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland who wants to do a radio piece about Poetry Out Loud, and asked if she could follow me and Will around a bit. We will meet her at States on Friday. In the meantime, she asked Will to send her an email describing what poetry means to him. This is part of his response. Please continue to remind yourself, as you read this, that Will is 18 years old.
Poetry asks us to stop what we’re doing – refrain from work, studying, pleasure, whatever – and just listen to another person. It seems so simple, but it’s a revolutionary concept in a society where we are disconnected from our neighbors, the people we see everyday in the street or at school.
Whitman once wrote: “Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?”
Through poetry, we start listening, thinking, and demanding answers. Everything we enjoy today was born of this process, from this effort to love others, listen to their stories, and struggle together against injustice. Poems are tools – tools to motivate us, to hearten us, to make us decent. And every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.
And finally, I have a little video here of Will performing at our school contest, if you'd like to see him in action. Here he is doing "Come up from the Fields, Father" by Walt Whitman.
Whatever happens on Friday, the outcome won't lessen the depth of experience Will has had with Poetry Out Loud. It has been huge for him, and for our school, and for me.