Poetry Out Loud

Thursday, March 31st, 2011 at 8:58 PM
Poetry Out Loud by Lora Zill

Often modern means of communication-- texts, twitter, e-mails, and Facebook postings -- seem to reduce language to its most basic, utilitarian functions. But there is an art form that lifts language above mere utility: Poetry. And the engagement in reading, writing, and speaking of it brings pleasure to those who reveal in its sound, rhythm, and imagery.

For the past six years, Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest has focused high school students on the power, richness, and diversity of the spoken word. Sponsored by the National Endowment of the Arts and the Poetry Foundation and administered in this state by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Poetry Out Loud (www.poetryoutloud.org) encourages students to build public speaking skills and self-confidence while learning their literary heritage through memorization and recitation of great poetry. This program builds on the resurgence of dynamic oral language, as evidenced in the current popularity of rap and hip-hop music as well as poetry slams.

Thousands compete nationwide each year in their schools, and the winners advance to regional and then to the state finals, and then ultimately to the national finals in Washington D.C. in the spring of each year.

ArtsErie (www.artserie.org) is the local sponsoring organization, providing resources to high schools in northwestern Pennsylvania to encourage participation. In 2011 three groups-- Mercyhurst Prep, Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy, and Western Pennsylvania Christian Orators-- held competitions among dozens of students to send one representative each to the regional competition at Allegheny College. 

For 2011 Regional Winner Jillian Johannes it was an easy decision. The Mercyhurst Prep student loves poetry because “it’s written to last forever.” Megan Kibler, a contestant from Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy, had written poetry for years when she started reading some pillars of the Western canon, such as Poe, Dickinson, and Shakespeare. For her, excitement came from her ability to combine her love for theater with poetry in Poetry Out Loud.

Poetry Out Loud not only attracts those fond of poetry, but even converts some skeptics. Western Pennsylvania Christian Orators representative and Spartansburg resident Katelyn Baker, honestly admitted that at first she didn’t see the point of Poetry Out Loud, but it didn’t take long for the proverbial light bulb to turn on. After listening to an NEA POL resource that featured celebrities and poets reading their favorites works and sharing the meaning they find in poetry, she realized the power of words—particularly their inflection, pace, and volume. Those qualities attracted her because of her involvement in speech and debate and she eagerly signed on for a new challenge.

Aside from influence and inspiration from the poets, participating students receive guidance from teachers, like Mercyhurst Prep English teacher Bridget Whalen, who sees great benefit in encouraging students to participate. “Memorizing and reciting poetry are great skills to have because of the mental challenge and emphasis on public speaking,” says the teacher who’s brought a student to the regional competition every year. Whalen says her students love a POL website video of Charles Osgood interviewing Garrison Keillor, a past judge for the national competition. Keillor, author and radio host of Prairie Home Companion and The Writer’s Almanac, where he ends each broadcast by reading a poem, says the only thing he remembers from high school is memorizing a Shakespearean sonnet.

Recognizing the criticism some teachers place give of relying on rote memorization, Whalen, who makes memorizing and reciting a poem part of her English classes’ second term grade, believes there’s a place for it in education. “I wouldn’t want to use it all the time, but in Poetry Out Loud they have to choose, prepare, and memorize the poem, and then get up and sell it.”

When her students take turns presenting their poems to the class...

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