Reviving the Vanished Voice of Poetry

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008

The judges were primed and the audience expectant. Then 16-year-old Shawntay A. Henry walked onstage.

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful

and terrible thing, needful to man as air,

usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all . . .

this man, superb in love and logic, this man shall be remembered.

Her mature articulation of "Frederick Douglass" by Robert E. Hayden helped her beat 11 other finalists to win a poetry recitation contest last week at George Washington University that has quickly become one of the nation's largest arts education programs, reflecting the growing revival of poetry as an oral art form.

More than 200,000 high school students from 1,500 schools across the country memorized and learned how to effectively recite poems this year for Poetry Out Loud, a contest created three years ago to draw on the popularity of rap, hip-hop and radio to create the next generation of poetry readers.

"We are taking the impulse of the electric popular culture and linking it to the masterpieces of poetry," said Dana Gioia, a renowned poet, critic and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, which co-sponsors the competition with the nonprofit Poetry Foundation.

Some 40 years after the memorization and recitation of poems were largely dropped from classrooms, they are reentering education, and many of today's students -- unlike their parents -- find it entirely natural and expressive, not repressive.

"It's cool," said Victor Akosile, 18, the finalist from the District, who got involved when his English teacher at McKinley Technology High School offered extra credit for participating.

"It's my new hobby," he said. "Poetry is definitely a great form of self-expression."

Poetry recitals, educators say, are about more than memorizing words and learning stage presence and public-speaking skills. And recitals demonstrate what is key about poems -- that they are meant to be heard.

"The program teaches that a poem is first an event of the ear, not the eye," said John Barr, a poet and president of the Poetry Foundation. "We are used to encountering a poem in the pages of a magazine, or in a book, or on a Web screen, and that's fine. But the very nature of a good poem is that it is a kind of music based in language. The meaning of the poem occurs very much in the interaction between the sound of the words and in the sense of the words."

Physical presence, tone and articulation, appropriateness of dramatization as well as physical presence and evidence of understanding all play into understanding a poem -- and scoring well in the competition.

"You look for believability," said judge and writer Garrison Keillor. "A person comes to the stage and tells you this poem, and they tell it straight.

"Poetry is invisible to mass media, but it is a powerful underground river," he said. "There are millions of Americans who are secret poets. I'm one of them."

Henry, the winner from the U.S. Virgin Islands who competed against 51 other state and territory semifinalists at the two-day event, said she is surprised by how quickly she came to appreciate poetry. She took up poetry as a class assignment.

Poetry Out Loud was launched as a pilot program in a few District and Chicago schools and then was expanded. The creators said they decided to offer it as a supplement for willing teachers because they believed it was the only way to bring poetry into the classroom at a time when standardized tests on math and reading rule.

Students choose a poem to recite from an anthology updated annually.

"Most people downplay poetry as a lost art," said Attallah Sheppard, 17, the Connecticut winner. "But once you find a poem you like, and memorize it and recite it, a piece of it becomes a part of you, and poetry is no longer dead. You have that poem forever."

Memorization and recitation of poems was standard in U.S. classrooms for many decades -- that is, until the 1960s when the culture shifted and artistic expression changed. Memorizing Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and other classic poems was not only seen as repressive and an outmoded form of teaching, poets say, but the very notion of meter and rhyme in poetry was challenged.

In the 1980s, meter and rhyme began to reappear, and some teachers returned to teaching poetry as an oral tradition. But it was far less common because arts education in general had declined, and because many students -- as well as their teachers -- are intimidated by poetry, educators said.

"Often in schools, students are turned off by poetry because they're taught to 'get it,' " said assistant professor Gerry LaFemina, director of the Frostburg Center for Creative Writing at Frostburg State University.

"So they read Frost's 'Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening' and the teacher asks what the poem's about and a kid says: 'It's about being tired and coming home and just enjoying a pause in the quiet beauty of nature' or something like that. And the teacher says, 'No, it's about death.' Now, the word 'death' doesn't appear in the poem. So students think that poetry has to be cryptic, confusing, a puzzle. And they learn to fear it."

Instead, he and other teachers said, poetry should be fun. Young children understand that concept, even if they don't understand the poem, because they instinctively respond to the tone, cadences and play of poetry, said Martha Serpas, a poet and associate professor of English at the University of Tampa.

"They can offer rhymes, puns and words that shine -- to paraphrase [Emily] Dickinson -- from an early age and are eager to memorize and write poems for years unless, perhaps, it is suddenly represented as an elite and difficult art," she said.

Gioia said he once feared that poetry had become so complicated that it would never appeal to a mass audience. The rise of rap in the 1980s underscored an unarticulated need for the oral tradition in U.S. society, he said. Poetry Out Loud was created as a way to move what was happening on the street back into the classroom.

"We need poetry because we recognize in it who we are," said poet and English professor Kim Bridgford of Fairfield University in Connecticut. "Poetry shows us, through both its music and message, how we are connected to others, how we are not alone."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company