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Martin: Poetry Out Loud

Supported by the Vermont Arts Council, students from 35 Vermont high schools will recite poems tonight at the Barre Opera House for the semifinals of the 2016 Vermont Poetry Out Loud Competition.

Each student has selected, memorized, and practiced reciting three poems from a list of 800 with some creative constraints - one has to be shorter than 25 words, and one has to be written before 1900. Winners advance to the state finals on March 17th, and hopefully on to the national competition as well. The National Endowment for the Arts started Poetry Out Loud when studies showed declining readership in poetry, perhaps exacerbated by the narrowing of curriculum under the No Child Left Behind Act of the last decade.

Before she worked for the Vermont Arts Council, Erika Lowe taught high school English and coached students for Poetry Out Loud. Five thousand plus students participate in Vermont each year, she told me recently – actually more than play football around the state.

Students choose a poem that resonates with them, and then delve into it deeply in order to uncover and interpret its nuances in their performance. Students must go well beyond rote memorization and refine their delivery, using pauses, shifts, and emphasis to dramatic effect, making eye contact with the audience, and taking a strong stance on stage. Don’t drop the end of lines and don’t fidget.

Erika Lowe believes this return to a powerful oral tradition engages students in a new way. She’s been blown away by the performances of some English Language Learners, by athletes who never liked poetry before but take the leap, and by students who don’t always get “A”s but are stars behind the microphone.

Montpelier High School teacher Kerrin McCadden agrees, saying “You don’t have to have a 4.0. You just have to want it.”

McCadden is also a poet whose work has appeared in Best American Poetry and the American Poetry Review, who thinks this return to the oral tradition is also reflected in the popularity of The Moth Radio Hour and slam poetry.

Poetry Out Loud may begin with lines of verse on the page but then it goes well beyond, as students work on voice, presence, poise, warmth, even vulnerability… kind of reminds me of the famous John Dewey notion that "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself."