Poetry Must Also Be Heard

They were twenty-seven high school students from all over California who had memorized the works of poets such as Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, Billy Collings, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marge Piercy, Phyllis Wheatley, Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, and many others… three read a poem by Maurice Kilwein Guevara that elicited a few laughs (“Dona Josefina Counsels Dona Concepcion Before Entering Sears”). Even Shakespeare and Elizabeth I were represented. They were part of the high school poetry recital competition “Poetry Out Loud,” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the California Poets In The Schools, and Target—and held at the State Capitol building in Sacramento on March 15. I served as one of four judges—the others were Cathy Barber, Adam Hubbard, and Al Young (former California Poet Laureate).  I had previously served as a National Poetry Out Loud judge in Washington DC over the past couple of years. I truly love to see young people embody other people’s poems, making them their own, with their particular inflections and affectations. While many of these participants may not end up as professional poets, a few read the night before in Sacramento their own original works, indicating that poetry making is strong in many of these young people. Reciting poetry—almost a lost art until former NEA Director Dana Goia in 2006 helped resurrect this on a national scale with “Poetry Out Loud”—is a powerful way to get into poetry, into words, lines, images, and layers of meaning. It was my pleasure to take part, although at this level of competition it was extremely difficult to demarcate the differences. All the reciters were wonderful, engaging. They represented schools from diverse California counties. With two rounds from each competitor, the final five chosen were given a third round to determine the winner—who will then go to the national finals at the end of April, competing with representatives from all fifty states. Finally—after scoring that involved tenths of a number differences between the final five reciters—Morgan Brown of Monterey County was declared winner of the 2010 California Poetry Out Loud Competition. My congratulations go to Ms. Brown, her family, and her school. I also got a chance to hang with Lucero Arellano and Josie Talamantez of the California Arts Council, who showed me their offices and introduced me to many of the fine people who help keep arts alive in the state. My thanks to all those who invited me to take part. Reading poetry out loud is another vital dimension of poetry interaction. When I was small, my mother a few times recited back Spanish-language poems she learned in Mexico as a little girl. This is called declamacion. I’m convinced it was one of the factors that drew me to love the power of words, in all languages, and to eventually see poetry as one of my life’s callings. c/s

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