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An Inside Look at the Nation’s Largest High School Poetry Recitation Contest

Photo: Courtesy of Poetry Out Loud

In this age of texts and tweets, a poem reminds us that there is beauty in our language, in the world, in ourselves, and in others. In this age of search engines and quick answers, poetry reminds us to feel that unique pleasure in wondering about what we don’t know. When the world can sometimes feel divisive and hard, poetry allows us to enter the depths of anger, sadness, fear, and shame until we can’t look away, and also of love so that it grows exponentially. It can make us laugh. In an age of fast-paced change, it teaches us to slow down and embrace silence. Used by ancient people to pass down stories at a time before written language, poetry is an old art form that can clear a path towards a more empathetic future.

April, 2020 marks the 15th anniversary of Poetry Out Loud, the National Endowment for the Arts’ national poetry recitation competition for high school students. Since its inception, the program has reached more than 3.8 million high school students and 60,000 teachers from 16,000 schools in every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and state and jurisdictional arts agencies and is designed around high school poetry recitation competitions that help students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about literary history and contemporary life. There is no cost to participate. 

Many students have been eager to be part of the program to demonstrate their performance skills and share their passion for poetry. They delight in finding other literature lovers their age in their community and from faraway places. But many other students participate reluctantly, skeptical that a poem could speak to them or too shy to want to recite a poem publicly. These are often the students who come away from the experience forever changed, awed by how a certain poem can make them feel and what they can achieve once they conquer their doubts and fears, not to mention the rush of adrenaline they experience from competing.

It’s no wonder poetry reading is on the rise, particularly among young adults. According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, poetry readership is the highest on record since 2002, with the poetry-reading rate among young adults more than doubling in the last five years.

Students who participate in Poetry Out Loud are introduced to a full range of more than a thousand classic and contemporary poems in the program’s anthology. They are encouraged to choose ones to recite that resonate with them in some way: a familiar hobby, say, or life experience or simply a universal feeling. One might choose, for example, the poem football dreams by Jacqueline Woodson, How I Learned Bliss by Oliver de la Paz, The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens, or Rain by Kazim Ali.

Reciting a poem is not like dramatizing a monologue. Students must communicate the meaning and feeling behind the words of the poem without getting in the way. That’s no easy task. Their success is judged according to six criteria: voice and articulation (pace, rhythm, intonation, and pronunciation); physical presence (poise and body language); dramatic appropriateness (no excessive gestures or unnecessary emoting); accuracy (no missed or incorrect words); evidence of understanding (e.g., the poem’s themes, allusions, tone, irony, multiple meanings); and overall performance (the degree to which the recitation has become more than the sum of its parts).

The program starts at the classroom level. Teachers are provided with lesson plans and promotional resources, and students are encouraged to view videos of past student performances and download the Poetry Out Loud app, where they can find, save, and practice poems for their competitions. Winners at the classroom level advance to a schoolwide competition, then to a regional and/or state competition. 

Then comes the national championship, held every year in the nation’s capital in April (National Poetry Month). Nine of the 53 students who compete in the national semi-finals the day before advance to this competition, where they recite poems before a panel of judges and a live audience, as well as others around the country who watch the event live online. The students compete for a total of $50,000 in awards and school stipends, including $20,000 for the national champion. Past winners have hailed from 13 states and territories across the nation, from Alaska to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Out of the care for the health and safety of students, parents, teachers, and everyone involved in Poetry Out Loud, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation have cancelled the 2020 National Finals Competition due to the spread of COVID-19, but the celebration of poetry and Poetry Out Loud champions around the country will endure. “It’s nice to have something other than sports to rally around, to see such tangible social support for intellectual effort, creativity, and healthy social risk-taking,” a teacher from Kentucky told Poetry Out Loud. And the impact of the program doesn’t stop there, for it builds a deep and lasting empathy among the next generation. It does this through the poems and the experience of learning how to recite them; through the camaraderie of rooting for one’s school and state; and of seeing one’s peers be just as nervous on stage. 

If you’ve been lucky enough to see the championship when all 53 smiling students come onstage to loud applause, you’d see America at its very best. Whether they come from red states or blue, urban settings or rural, whether they struggle or excel at academics or speak English as a first or second language, there they are, all together, celebrating our language and cultural history. Most of them will go on to have careers outside of poetry, but they will have more confidence in their chosen fields, more experience in the world, more empathy for others, more appreciation for how best to communicate, and a poem or two when they need it most.

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