To truly recite a poem, you have to know and feel the poem. That knowledge and feeling flowed abundantly yesterday at Washington D.C.’s Banneker Academic High School. They rocked their POETRY OUT LOUD program. I was honored to be a judge for the second time and I sat amazed at these students, their passion for poetry, their knowledge of the poems, and their dedicated teachers and staff. Twelve students, who had won their classroom recitation competitions recited their poems before the whole student body and three guest judges.
The range of poems they recited was remarkable too. From Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “How Do I Love Thee?” and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “truth” these students proved they knew the power and meaning of every word. Their recitations were nuanced, not extreme. The program opened with a young man reciting Billy Collins’ “The Death of Allegory.” One student read the difficult Eavan Boland poem “And Soul.” Another took on the complicated “Ars Poetica” by Archibald Macleish. The winning student recited the haunting Bob Hicok poem “Calling Him Back from Layoff.” This poem recounts the loaded phone call from a former boss to a laid-off worker, inviting that worker back. This young woman perfectly captured the dignity and gratitude from the worker, the hesitation of the employer. You could feel the poem’s powerful relief — imagine being out of work for a long time and then getting the call to come back to your former job. Hicok’s poem– and this young student’s recitation– captured all of that complicated human content. Other poems recited were: “Deliberate” by Amy Uyematsu, “Domestic Situation” by Ernest Hilbert, “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, “Let The Light Enter” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “The Redeemer” by Siegfried Sassoon, and “The Man He Killed” by Thomas Hardy. Quite a diverse group of poems.
POETRY OUT LOUD is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. They sponsor these school-wide competitions which move on to state-wide competitions, culminating in a national competition and champion. I used to be a little skeptical of this program, thinking it was better to work with students writing their own poems. I still believe that but a great deal can be learned by getting so inside the poem that you can recite it, setting loose all its power. These twelve students did precisely that. The auditorium full of high school students was electric. It fell silent as the students recited their poems, then burst into applause and passion as only a high school audience can.
The English Department at Banneker has run this program for some years now and they do an awesome job. Coordinated by Charles Feeser, it’s clear that these students have spent time with these poems, getting at them from all different angles. These English teachers are doing a magnificent service to their students and to these poems.
I had a chance to talk with the young man who won the Banneker POETRY OUT LOUD program last year, when I also served as a judge. He introduced the judges at this year’s competition. Last year, as an 11th grader, he was a bit timid until he recited an Etheridge Knight poem. But this year, he had clearly matured and grown in confidence. He told me he was waiting to hear from colleges — UNC Chapel Hill among others. I told him how last year, after he won, I contacted my friend, poet Randall Horton, who is part of a group of poets called “The Symphony”– a group influenced by the work of Etheridge Knight. He told me he chose that poem because he knew he could only really recite a poem “he felt.” His recitation proved he felt it. It was good to see a former winner of the POETRY OUT LOUD program moving on to some great opportunities in higher education.
Many of us who love poetry hold certain poems deep in our memories. We can recite them anytime because we have lived them from the inside out. The living poem becomes clear at a POETRY OUT LOUD competition. It showcases the power poetry can have in the life of a young person. I suspect these students will carry the poems they recited yesterday in their memories for a long time. I know I will.