Blessed Sheriff took the stage and stared out at the crowd.
She then began her recitation.
It was a picture I had after the war.
A bombed English church. I was too young
to know the word English or war,
but I knew the picture.
They are the first lines of “The Lamb,” a poem by Linda Gregg, and they helped Blessed, 15, take second place in Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation contest for high school students.
“The Lamb” was the first of three poems the Richard Montgomery High School sophomore recited as she competed against eight other students for the championship Tuesday at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.
The competition judges students on physical presence, articulation, appropriate dramatization and other factors as they interpret classic and contemporary poems. Students must convey the emotion and meaning of a poem without overacting.
Blessed said that “The Lamb” is her favorite poem because it is “about finding hope in desperate situations.”
As Blessed recited, her brows furrowed, her hand turned into a fist and her eyes widened. Her voice paced and quickened through the words of each work.
“You can tell someone is really into their poem when you look into their eyes,” Blessed said after reciting her second poem, “Heaven,” by Cathy Song.
Her final poem Tuesday evening was “Love Armed,” by Aphra Behn.
Langston Ward of Washington state won the national championship. Blessed won second place and took home $10,000 and Ward, $20,000. They also each received $500 for their schools to buy poetry books.
Blessed started preparing for the competition in December, memorizing poems, untangling their meanings and practicing her performance.
“A lot of times, you find students acting out a poem rather than interpreting a poem or becoming the poem,” Blessed said the day after her second-place finish. “It’s really hard to find that balance.”
English teacher Davina Smith, who coached Blessed, said reciting poetry shouldn’t be confused with slam poetry, which is more dramatic and theatrical. The best poetry recitation allows people who hear the poem to understand a meaning they might not have otherwise grasped while reading it in print, Smith said.
“Poetry is not considered as essential as testing or assessments,” Smith said. “On the other hand, it is good for students in terms of enriching their souls.”
Fifty-three champions competed in the national finals of the Poetry Out Loud contest this week. The Washington champion is Nathalie Geneveve Dary, 14, a ninth-grade student at Archbishop Carroll High School. Miranda Danielle Wack, 18, a senior at Fredericksburg Academy, represented Virginia, and Blessed, of Gaithersburg, represented Maryland.
The Poetry Out Loud contest started in 2006 as a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation to encourage high school students to study and appreciate classic and contemporary poetry.
Blessed, who said she is considering studying literature or medicine when she goes to college, said she is looking forward to competing again next year.
“It feels so extraordinary to be so blessed and recognized for the hard work that you put into your poetry,” Blessed said.