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?