On Thursday evening I went to the regional finals for the national poetry recitation competition for high school students, POETRY OUTLOUD.
It was enjoyable to listen to the students recite their poems. Some of the students were shy and hesitant. Others absolutely owned the poems they presented. Three students were selected to continue on to the State competition, where one student and an alternate will be selected to travel to Washington DC to represent our state. It was easy for me to select the students I thought would be winners, and I was actually a little surprised that the students I thought were winners were the same ones the judges selected.
The students recite one poem and then there is a break for the judges totally points. There was an English teacher sitting next to me and he had coached one of the competitors. He asked me who I thought would win. He agreed on two of my selections but was different on the third, but he admitted that he was biased because he had a student entered.
On the second round one of my selected winners was reciting Poe’s Annabelle Lee, and he said he thought that was too easy a poem for recitation and would probably cause the young man not to win. After his recitation he asked me what I thought, and I told him I still stuck with my selection. I thought he did an excellent job. The teacher said that the rhythm of that poem sometimes takes over the presentation.
I must admit that I thought the poems the students selected to memorize did not take full advantage of their voices. There was one young Asian woman who had a fantastic voice and presentation, but her poems just weren’t memorable. Many of the young women selected poems by male authors on male subjects like war, and I thought that just didn’t take advantage of their instruments. Several had heavy hispanic accents and those were difficult to understand when they spoke softly or ran their words together.
Many of the poems felt forced. The student would hit an emotional high in the poem and then didn’t know how to come back down to reach the full range of the poem.
But the one poem I was most disappointed in was the recitation of Theodore Roethke’s MY PAPA’S WALTZ. I don’t know if it is because I feel like Roethke’s poems are mine, or because I have memorized that poem myself. But Roethke wrote that poem in waltz time, which is part of the beauty of the poem. There are lots of opportunities for gestures to go with that poem too. The young woman reciting it didn’t use either the gestures or the waltz time.
Several students thanked an English teacher, who spoke to me with a very heavy Spanish accent himself. I thought that might be part of the problem.
It was funny to me but I knew what the students needed to do to do a better job. I’m wondering if I should contact one of the schools and offer my services. i realize that the poems the kids can select from are limited, but I thought the young women would be better off with a Mary Oliver, an Elizabeth Bishop, Kim Addonizio, or Lucille Clifton poem.
There was an Eve Merriam poem done, but that was done by a boy who did a lovely job with it. This would have been a great one for one of the young ladies.
I do wonder how much is done to help the students with their poem selection.