Recitation Brings Poetry Alive for Students

Posted April 26, 2010 at 3:59pm

Look out, President Barack Obama: There’s a new group of talented public speakers in town. Today marks the finals of Poetry Out Loud, a national competition in which high school students recite poetry for prize money.

Students from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will vie for a first place prize of $20,000 in a competition sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. The students will be honored this morning at a Congressional breakfast held in the Cannon House Office Building Caucus Room. The competition will take place at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. Students, who will be judged on their recitation skills, will select three poems from the Poetry Foundation’s online anthology and memorize them.

“Quite often they pick poems that they identify with personally,” Poetry Foundation President John Barr says.

The panel of judges consists of author Garrison Keillor, actress Alfre Woodard, poets Valerie Martínez and Jane Shore, critic Adam Kirsch and 2009 Poetry Out Loud national champion William Farley. More than 300,000 students have participated in this year’s competition, and 53 of them flew into D.C. to compete in Monday’s semifinals. Nine will compete in the finals tonight.

“I think of this thing as the poetry equivalent of the national spelling bee,” Barr says. “Instead of hearing a high school student spell a difficult word, they are reciting a poem, which is interesting.”

The competition, which began in 2005, aims to get high school students interested in poetry in the hopes of sparking a lifelong love of the written word. The Poetry Foundation’s research shows that adults who love poetry began reading it at an early age.

“Our experience is that when we’re 16 or 18 or 14 years old and we are required to memorize things like a piece of literature, it often stays with us for the rest of our lives,” Barr says. “There’s sort of a magic moment in the state of mind in people who are in that age group, and when they are exposed to great literature and lasting poetry in a deep and intense way, it has a way of staying with them.”

Barr became involved in the Poetry Foundation after spending 30 years on Wall Street. An investment banker by day and poet by night, Barr has published several anthologies of his work. In addition to hosting Poetry Out Loud, the foundation is also responsible for publishing Poetry Magazine, which discovered T.S. Eliot, among others.

Last week, the foundation unveiled a new headquarters in Chicago, which features 35,000 volumes of poetry that are available to the public as well as an auditorium designed for spoken-word performances.

The Poetry Out Loud national champion will be awarded $20,000, while second place will receive $10,000. The student who places third will receive $5,000.