I became a convert. A couple of weeks ago, I served as a judge for the Poetry Out Loud competition at Washington, D.C.’s Banneker Senior High School and I became a convert. I used to think that poetry recitation contests were a little dry and that I’d rather use my energies to help students write their own poetry. I still think that about the writing part, but I discovered a world of beautiful benefits in this national recitation contest.
To recite a poem well, you must know the poem deeply. The 15 students we heard recite poems at Banneker, certainly proved this. They recited a wide variety of poems, all taken from the Poetry Out Loud anthology. One element which helped in my conversion is Poetry Out Loud’s emphasis on the poem itself. I went in thinking I was going to watch performances. I thought I’d see students overplaying and overdramatizing to the detriment of the poem. But this was not the case at all. In fact, in the judges’ materials, Poetry Out Loud states very clearly that the dramatic elements of voice, gesture, volume, inflection, — all these have to serve the poem.
The students I watched did this masterfully. Yes, these were teenagers on stage, but they were teenagers who knew and believed the poem they recited. It was obvious these students had fallen in love with the poem they chose. They memorized it, learned its nuances, its pauses. They believed in the poem.
It was also interesting to watch their peers, an auditorium full of high school students. They put the judges in a row near the front but behind us were several hundred students who fell silent as soon as their peers were introduced. Once a poem was finished, the high school audience went wild, of course. But during the poem, you could hear the poem. This is a great credit to those students, their teachers, and the culture of poetry they have fostered at Banneker.
I was also delighted to hear a student read a poem by Etheridge Knight. The young man who read Knight’s poem was eventually the winner of the competition and he will move on to represent Banneker at the District finals and perhaps go on to the national competition.
I know many English teachers who won’t dare ask students to memorize poetry anymore. They feel it sounds too much like the 1950s. I have never believed that. Every year, I require students to memorize some Shakespeare and usually one other poem we study. There is no substitute for getting the words of a good poem into your own mouth, making yourself find the pace and emphasis that best brings life to the words.
So as far as recitation contests, I’m now a believer. I was honored to be at Banneker High School and to be taught by these passionate young students.