April's observance of National Poetry Month ends with a bang tonight as students from around the United States gather in Washington, D.C. for the national finals of Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation contest that encourages youth to learn about great poetry through memorization and performance.
The national Poetry Out Loud champion will be named during tonight's finals, which will be webcast at 7 p.m. EST. You can check out the live webcast here.
Poetry Out Loud was launched by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts in high schools nationwide in the spring of 2006. The competition continues to grow every year, with more than 365,000 students competing in the 2011-2012 school year. The program starts at the classroom level. Winners advance to a school-wide competition, then to a regional and/or state competition, and ultimately to the National Finals, where finalists can win scholarship money and books for their schools.
For a pre-game show of tonight's finals, check out clips of last year's finalists at Poetry Out Loud's YouTube channel.
Memorizing poems was a common classroom practice in the first half of the 20th century, but the learning exercise fell largely our of fashion in more recent times. Now, with poetry recitiation contests in the United States, Great Britain and Canada, the custom is making a comeback.
Although the national contenders recite poems from memory, there's nothing rote about their approaches. These poems aren't just offered aloud; they're performed, and the results can be powerful, as with national 2012 national champion Kristen Dupard's heartstopping take on "I'm a Fool to Love You" by Cornelius Eady. Last year's third-place winner, MarKaye Hassan, moved me to tears with her interpretation of Emily Dickinson's "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain."
"I've been fortunate enough to attend the National Finals for the past three years, and each time I'm amazed by the talent of these teenagers," said Kristin Gecan of the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation. "As our president, John Barr, has said, 'Once memorized by these students, great poems become their friends for life.'"
Danny Heitman, an author and a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is an adjunct professor at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication.