Thursday, December 15, 2011

Poetry Challenge - Let's Hear You!

We moved to Connecticut this summer because my husband joined the faculty at a boarding school called Choate Rosemary Hall. Which means we now live in a house connected to a dorm with 15 high school junior boys. Which means that every now and then students ask me for help with their essays during study hours. Which is fun.

For the last two nights I went to the school’s Poetry Out Loud contest, which is part of a national program to encourage young people to memorize and recite poetry. We’re amidst the final days before winter break, and the events competed with basketball drills, orchestra rehearsal, play practice and the like. So although the recitations were open to the public, I was the only audience member who was neither participant nor judge. (That’s right, I’m the new literary geek on campus!) Happily, the finalists will recite at a full school assembly later this year.

It was wonderful to watch the students take the stage, breathe deeply, and deliver the spirit of a poem through their demeanor and tone. We heard works by Naomi Shihab Nye, Emily Dickenson, Al Young, Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, and others. Some students giggled sheepishly after their performance, others high-fived their friends, and I wonder if any truly knew what a brave and beautiful act they had done.

As writers, we know that poetry is meant to be read aloud, with its sounds and rhythms physically resonating. Committing to learn a poem’s words and meanings by heart and internalizing its cadence is an even more powerful way to cultivate our love of language and enrich our own voices.

On the way home, I wondered what poems I could recite from memory: The King’s Breakfast and some others by A.A. Milne, plus a solid playlist of poems about things like escalators and drinking fountains and toasters and leaves. It’s nice to have the right words at your fingertips when you’re waiting for the toast to pop. Still, I’ll make it a new goal to broaden my repertoire.

What poems can you recite by heart? Or come reasonably close?


  1. LOVE having kids reciting poetry, and you are a lucky duck for being there.

    I memorized a sh**load of poetry in high school. Garrison Keillor did a monologue where he recited the beginning of the Canterbury Tales in middle English, so I learned that (up to "that slepen al the nyght with open ye"). A bunch of stuff from Hamlet for my English Lit class. "We are the music-makers" by O'Shaughnessy (the first three stanzas), "That time of year thou may'st in me behold" by Shakespeare -- just all kinds of stuff. This is what you do when you have no social life, but it was nice.

    Didn't memorize much stuff after high school except for "The great poet returns" by Mark Strand, who as it turns out is a gigantic jerk, but it's still a good poem. But in many ways my high school self has my old self beat.

  2. Melinda, you're reminding me that I memorized 'Twas the Night Before Christmas in 3rd grade, and it's still with me!

  3. I can confidently recite Jabberwocky, but that's about it. =(

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  5. Same here, Cheryl! From the time I can remember, I had memorized difficult passages, either poetry or prose, when I didn't understand the words--hoping that the words would one day plant themselves and I would understand what they meant. I did this obsessively even through high school. So, lots of Shakespeare, oh and The Gettysburg Address. But that doesn't count as "poetry" (poetic, perhaps). Great post!

  6. LOL! Peter, I could never recite Jabberwocky with confidence. Kudos to you!

    @Melissa, Gettysburg Address is certainly a worthy piece. Have you read "Lincoln at Gettysburg" by Gary Wills? Or "Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel" by C.M. Butzer?

  7. Nope, but I'll look into them. Thank you, Cheryl!