When Redmond High School teacher Jeremy Rubenstein arrived at the school Feb. 11 and saw a full parking lot, he was ecstatic to think how many people in the community were showing their enthusiasm about poetry by attending the school’s Poetry Out Loud scholarship competition.
Then he found out there was a wrestling tournament in the gym.
Even after realizing only a few dozen people were in the auditorium for the poetry, his excitement was not diminished.
“You guys have more courage than I could ever imagine having at your age,” Rubenstein told the 22 competitors. He got a big laugh when he added that he briefly wondered if it might be fun to have kids in wrestling singlets come up to the microphone and recite poetry but thought better of it.
Poetry Out Loud was begun in 2005 by the National Endowment of the Arts and the Poetry Foundation to encourage the study and understanding of great poetry. The organizations offer schools educational materials to begin the process at the classroom level, learning how dynamic recitation makes poetry more enjoyable.
Students recite poems from a long list of choices, including classics such as Poe’s “Annabel Lee” to more modern pieces like “Supermarket in California” by Alan Ginsberg. Classroom winners compete at the school level, and school winners go to a state competition. The national contest is in Washington D.C. in April.
Last year’s Oregon champion finished second at nationals, where the winner takes home a $20,000 scholarship.
Students are judged on several criteria, from physical presence (eye contact, body language), articulation and projection, appropriateness of dramatization and evidence of understanding and level of difficulty. Accuracy is also important. Points are deducted if students need to rely on a prompter to recall the words.
According to teacher Rachel Sarrett, organizer of the local competition, good poetry recitation is more about storytelling than acting.
“You’re not portraying a character; you’re conveying the meaning of your poem to the audience.”
The winner of this year’s competition, junior Monica Brown, knows about meaning.
“I could understand where she was coming from, even if it was more than 200 years ago,” she said. Her chosen poem, “On Virtue” by Phillis Wheatley, was written by a freed slave in the late 1700s and is laden with archaic language foreign to most teenagers today.
“I looked up a lot of the words to make sure I was using them correctly and closed my bedroom door so I could practice over and over.”
Brown, who says she’s lucky to be able to memorize easily, took her time choosing a poem for the competition, wanting to find one that she connected to.
“I’ve always really liked poetry,” she said. “When I was in middle school I’d use writing poetry as a creative outlet but I didn’t read it a lot. Now I love it.”
In the RHS auditorium, three judges listened to and watched each student while another tracked the accuracy of the recitation. After every presentation the judges – reminiscent of a beauty pageant where contestants are given scores for poise, appearance, and skill in interviews – added or took away points for each of the criteria required.
Points were tallied, so a student who had points taken off for accuracy but scored high in articulation and level of difficulty might receive a higher score than another who recited perfectly but failed to project or show understanding of the work.
“When I practiced for my parents I’d go through the process of explaining every line for them and that helped me make sure I was understanding it,” she said, adding that having a live audience helped her keep from over-dramatizing the recitation.
A Global Academy student at RHS, Brown credits teacher Jeremy Rubenstein for his support and inspiration in preparing for the contest. Now she is busy readying for the state competition in March, for which she needs to prepare three poems of varied length and complexity.
“I think poetry is something most teenagers can relate to,” she said. “It may be uncool to admit it but I think most of us use it as a way to understand all the things we go through.”
-- story and photo by Leslie Pugmire Hole