More than a Poetry Recitation

By Holly Wendt

On the evening of January 25, students from high schools across south-central Pennsylvania gathered at the Ware Center for the Arts in downtown Lancaster for the regional Poetry Out Loud finals. The event was organized by Marci Nelligan, Program Coordinator for South Central PaARTners/Millersville University, and featured recitations by ten students, each representing a single high school in the region. More than 6,700 Pennsylvania students from 108 schools participated in Poetry Out Loud this year, and the program has thrived across the nation since 2005.

During the competition, the ten finalists recite one poem each during the three rounds. Scoring is cumulative. The poems are chosen from a body of work selected by the Poetry Out Loud organization, either from the Poetry Out Loud website or from the current print anthology, and there are requirements: one of the poems selected and recited must have been written prior to 1900 and one must be fewer than twenty-five lines.

What that meant in a practical sense was a wonderful diversity of recitations: each round moved us from writers like John Donne and Ben Jonson to Edna St. Vincent Millay and H.D. to Larry Levis and Carmen Giménez Smith.

I served as one of the five judges, four of whom evaluated the students’ recitations while the fifth gauged the speakers’ accuracy. The criteria for judging ask students to develop a thorough and nuanced understanding of the poem, such that the meaning of the poem is evident in both intonation and gesture, but successful recitations also stop short of dramatic performance. The level of understanding necessary for a high quality recitation means that students are fully immersing themselves in and connecting with works sometimes hundreds of years old, often written by speakers whose experiences and identities are very different from the reciters’ own, an act that requires both intellectual acuity and a developed sense of empathy.

The event offered me a welcome opportunity to participate in a vibrant arts education initiative and to meet other arts educators and advocates—including faculty from West Chester University and Franklin and Marshall College, the Executive Director of Berks Arts Council, and a graduate student and arts organizer from Millersville University, who were also serving as judges—but the best part of the evening was witnessing the power of the arts in action. On a chilly night in January, the Ware Center was full of proud family members, friends, and community members coming together to support students in an event that has, at its heart, a deep understanding of poetry. And it was fun, made even more so by four performances by high school students from the We Rock the Mic program at Arbor Place, who read their own compositions, translating their personal stories into verse and sharing powerful moments of witness and resistance from their own lives.

Poetry as performance, entertainment, expression, and commentary has ancient roots. As a writer who is also a medievalist, I think first of the scop, the poet of the Anglo-Saxon meadhall. In Beowulf, the scop in Danish king Hrothgar’s hall uses his tales to both celebrate Beowulf’s success against Grendel and to offer cautionary tales to the poem’s young hero, lauding Beowulf’s mighty deeds while warning him to be careful of his ego, mindful of his great power. But poetry is not lecture; the cautionary tales are delivered obliquely via stories of a truce selfishly broken that results in much bloodshed and a once-great king who grows jealous and paranoid of his power and does not act as a leader ought, to the downfall of his people. As the scop weaves his words, listeners (and readers) invest in the narrative, watch the circumstances unfold, and hopefully learn from others’ mistakes and abuses of power. Despite being an epic that most remember for a hero killing monsters, the lessons of Beowulf emphasize using one’s abilities for the greater good rather than personal gain and the value of open hands over than closed fists.

In Beowulf, the hero takes heed. Despite immense physical strength and a life of great privilege—first as a king’s nephew, then another king’s son by affection if not by blood, and finally as a king himself—the poem gives this final epitaph for Beowulf:

cwǣdon þæt hē wǣre   wyruld-cyninga,
manna mildust   ond mon-ðwǣrust,
lēodum līðost   ond lof-geornost.

They said that of all of the world’s kings,
he was the one most benevolent and kind,
most gracious to the people and eager for renown.
(Beowulf 3180-3182, translation my own)

Because the West Saxon word lof-geornost can also translate to glory or fame, that Beowulf is eager for fame or glory may sound self-serving, but the poem’s context clarifies the meaning. The renown Beowulf wins, while accomplished through his physical prowess, is predicated on service to others: first to Hrothgar and the Danes who are terrorized by Grendel, then to his own Geatish king and the king’s son, and finally, as a king and an old man, to his own people, who have no other hope against the dragon that Beowulf defeats at the cost of his own life. Fame, in Beowulf, is not its own end, but a reward for worthy deeds and generous action. Praise at the Poetry Out Loud competition, for excellent recitation, was not for its own sake, but also in recognition of the participants’ ability to reach the audience, to stir both heart and mind to emphatic and empathetic purpose.

Taj Morales, the regional winner of Wednesday evening’s competition who will compete in the Pennsylvania state finals in March, recited Billy Collins’s “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July” as his first selection. The poem is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek meditation on the titular concept—told by a speaker who has never been fishing on the Susquehanna in July, preferring to go to museums and the like—but the poem hinges on the power of the imagination: by looking at a painting, the speaker can imagine the act, can imagine the pleasure of it, and though poem never actually takes speaker or reader out onto the river, one can’t help but leave the poem feeling as though it has. The poem bridges experience, speaker to reader, place to place. When, later, another student recited W. D. Ehrhart’s “Beautiful Wreckage,” a poem cataloguing heartbreaking what-ifs that might turn the horrors of the Vietnam War into mercies, into healing, listeners were transported again and to still more striking purpose: historical truth, personal sacrifice and personal failure, and the wild and fragile hope of healing in a world more kind.

As the participants and performers at the Poetry Out Loud Regional Finals kept demonstrating, access to the arts and arts education is transformative and powerful, not only to those who stood on stage, and Poetry Out Loud highlights language in particular. But it is important to use that power with careful intent and generosity of spirit; language inspires action, for good or for ill, as the world—both local and global—continues to remind us.

For more information on Poetry Out Loud, an initiative supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, click here.