How Do I Love Thee?

A recitation competition breeds public confidence in young students, appreciation for the spoken word—and a love for poetry.

Poetry Out Loud

DaNiesha Carr, 2010 Virginia State Poetry Out Loud Runner-Up, who graduated from Halifax County High School in South Boston.

“The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.” –Robert Frost

Some may think that, in this age of unlimited texting, the art of the spoken word is too stodgy for anyone under the age of, say, 30. But to the contrary, it is alive and well, not only in the rhyming, often verbally harsh forms of rap music or SLAM poetry but also in the most languid and traditional sense—poetry recitation. This year more than 8,000 high school students across Virginia will get into a classical mode as part of the Poetry Out Loud National Recitation contest, sponsored at the state level by Virginia Commission for the Arts in partnership with Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre in Richmond, and nationally by the National Endowment for the Arts and The Poetry Foundation.

Individuals who have been involved with Poetry Out Loud say that the competition improves students’ public-speaking and presentation skills, and just plain gives participants the opportunity to explore the visceral effects of good poetry. Says Debbie Raines, an English teacher at Grundy High School: “High schoolers are afraid of poetry. When they merely read it, it is difficult for them to understand. But when they see and hear it performed they ‘get it.’ It is like opening a whole new world for them.”

Contestants from the Old Dominion have proved formidable in the four-year history of the national competition. Last year Rappahannock’s Tia Robinson—twice a Virginia State Champ—placed ninth in the National Contest. In 2008, Will Farley of Arlington took the top national prize with his recitations of William Carlos Williams’ “Danse Ruse,” Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B,” and John Dunn’s “The Flea.” In addition to winning a $20,000 grand prize, Farley repeated his winning performance on “A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor’s nationally syndicated radio program. Competitors are evaluated on their physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, the poem’s level of difficulty, their evidence of understanding the poem and overall performance. The poems are selected from an anthology of poems put together by the Poetry Out Loud organizers.

Many students get hooked after their first experience and return to compete until they graduate. Says Asher McGloghlin, a Grundy High School junior who competed at last year’s regionals in Richmond: “There is something magical about reciting a poem in front of other people. Just the way you can express emotion. It’s not like any other art form.” TheatreIVRichmond.org

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