Reviving the Vanished Voice of Poetry

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008; Page B02

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.

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