Poetry Out Loud

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(HOST)This evening at five o’clock, central Vermont high school students will gather at the Pavilion in Montpelier to recite poetry aloud – from memory. Commentator Peter Gilbert explains.

(GILBERT) People have been reciting poetry from memory since before Homer regaled audiences with tales of Troy and travel. Many of us can still remember at least parts of poems we memorized in school. It may be the first few lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, about how, when April showers perk plants up, people, too, get spring fever. Maybe it’s favorite lines by Robert Frost. Or maybe it’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” or the dramatic lyrics of Robert Service.

An exciting new initiative, Poetry Out Loud was created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation and is administered nationwide in partnership with the arts council of each state. It all begins at the classroom level, then each school selects contestants to compete. The winner will represent Vermont in the National Finals in Washington, DC next month.

Poetry Out Loud encourages a broader and deeper appreciation of poetry – and at the same time builds self-confidence and helps students master speaking in public, an invaluable and under-practiced skill.

Many people are likely to ask why they should bother even reading a poem, let alone memorizing it and reciting it in public. The answer is that when you learn a poem by heart, you have a companion for life; it’s always with you, coming back to you when circumstances call it to mind. As Dana Gioia, the Chairman of the NEA, notes, “Learning great poetry by heart develops the mind and imagination.” He lists four reasons why recitation of poetry may be one of the most practical and important things you learn in school. It’s a powerful way of mastering both spoken and written language. It’s a way of developing our emotional intelligence. It helps us understand that language is holistic – that how something is said is actually part of what is being said. Finally, Gioia argues, poetry enlarges our humanity and gives us the power to express it.

Too many people – particularly males – are convinced that poetry has nothing to say to them. They are mistaken. Poetry can be a punch in the nose, a dagger in the heart, as well as a source of profound joy and comfort.

In recent years there’s been a resurgence of poetry as an oral art form; poetry slams and rap music attest to that. Poetry Out Loud builds on that momentum. True, it’s structured as a competition, but students are enormously supportive of each other, cheering each other on and wishing each other well. I think that’s in part because they respect the poetry itself. They know it’s good and important stuff.

This is the program’s first year. It involved only high schools in the Montpelier area, and I’ll be a judge. Next year the program will, I hope, involve every high school in Vermont and thousands of students will get to know just how enjoyable and accessible poetry can be, and how much poetry has to offer.

Peter A. Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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