In a dimly lit theater, a jazz quartet played while a teenager crossed the stage to a microphone. The enthusiastic audience applauded in anticipation. But it wasn't time to sing. Instead, it was poetry performing time.
Long ago, poems were recited out loud instead of being written down. Back when the Greeks first started the Olympics, they held poetry contests as well as athletic competitions. Now, poetry competitions have been revived. This year 120,000 high school students competed in the first Poetry Out Loud national recitation contest, performing poems from memory for $100,000 in prizes.
The first competitions were held in classrooms. The winners went on to schoolwide contests, and then they competed in city and state competitions. Finally, the 50 state champions, along with the District of Columbia champion, descended upon Washington, D.C., last week for the ultimate showdown.
After the 51 champions competed against one another, 12 went on to the finals. Then the field was narrowed to five. The final five had one last chance to "perform" a poem. The overall champ, Jackson Hille, a high school senior from Ohio, won a $20,000 scholarship.
The National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation started Poetry Out Loud because they realized that hearing a poem performed is a different experience from reading it on a page.
It's not just a matter of saying the words in the right order. It's the tone of voice, the pauses, the gestures, and the attitude of the person performing that bring the words to life. "What most people like is to hear a great poem recited well," says Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
"Each time we hear somebody recite a poem, we understand again what we found fresh and interesting about it," says National Public Radio broadcaster Scott Simon, master of ceremonies for the finals. Hearing it in a new voice offers something new for the listener.
Not only do the people hearing the poem have a new experience, the participants get the opportunity to connect with poetry in a new way. "There were poems I liked that I didn't really understand, and I knew by memorizing them, I'd be able to understand them better," explains Johnny Coyle from Virginia. "That has definitely worked."
"One big benefit of Poetry Out Loud is that I've learned a lot of really good poems, and I don't think I'll ever forget them," he adds.
Memorizing and presenting poems does help them understand those poems in a new way, other students agree. Another benefit of a competition such as Poetry Out Loud is that participants learn public-speaking skills that can help them for life.
Students who enjoy acting in school plays were common at the finals, but there were also football players, frisbee golfers, snowboarders, and potential law and nursing students. Teal Van Dyck from New Hampshire, who came in second overall, has her own experimental poetry jam band. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Van Dyck's last name.]
For most students, getting up in front of strangers and being judged on performance sounds pretty scary - and it was. But it was also fun.
And could these kids rock the mike! Ryan Kelley of North Dakota performed a lively, Irish-lilted version of "Jabberwocky," by Lewis Carroll that made the audience laugh. Aislinn Lowry of Missouri also amused listeners with her animated version of "The Spider and the Fly," by Mary Howitt. Arizona's Jordan McAlpin delivered the humorous "Litany," by Billy Collins, in a wonderful conversational tone.
On a more serious side, New Mexico's Fantasia Lonjose wowed the audience with her majestic rendition of "The Powwow at the End of the World" by Sherman Alexie.
All eyes were glued to Nevada's Gibran Baydoun as he presented "Sympathy," by Paul Laurence Dunbar, and as Chris Estevez from Pennsylvania delivered a hypnotic version of Rhina Espaillat's "Bilingual/Bilingue."
The contestants were rooting for one another. "The funny thing is there was no mean competition here," says Teal, the competitor from New Hampshire. "We were all sitting over there going, "Yea!"
When Jackson Hille took the stage to recite "Forgetfulness," he made his audience forget their seats and their surroundings and just hear poet Billy Collins's words. Jackson was so comfortable with the words that he presented them as if they were his own.
His favorite poets are Ogden Nash and Shel Silverstein, and that enjoyment of funny poetry showed through in his readings. One could read "Forgetfulness" as a tragic poem, but in Jackson's hands, it was full of humor.
Obviously, the audience loved hearing the poems, but the participants enjoyed presenting them, too. Shelby Leigh Taylor, a ninth-grader from Louisiana, showed the enthusiasm that students felt for the Poetry Out Loud experience when asked if she would come back again. "Every year!" she said.