Combine the versification of Emily Dickinson with the performance chops of Eminem and you’ll have something close to what was on offer at the finals of the Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest in Washington, D.C., on May 16. Fifty-one high school students from the 50 states and the District of Columbia—all winners at the state level of the competition and recipients of all-expenses-paid trips to the nation’s capital—gathered in the city’s historic Lincoln Theatre for a marathon day of poetry recitation and performance.
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Treading the boards on which the likes of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington once performed, each student took to the open stage—occupied only by a single microphone on its stand—and delivered one of three poems they were asked to prepare to a crowd that packed the lower level of the 1,250 capacity theatre. The students, many dapperly dressed in keeping with the classic décor of the theatre, were judged on such criteria as volume, presence, evidence of understanding, and level of difficulty by a panel of judges that included essayist Michael Dirda, Caroline Kennedy, and author A.B. Spellman.
The Poetry Out Loud competition is the product of a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Each group dedicated $500,000 to fund the 2006 program, providing grants to state arts agencies to run the local contests. Participating schools also received free, standards-based curriculum materials including print and online poetry anthologies and teachers’ guides.
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“I don’t believe any kid gets educated unless the arts play a role in that education,” Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, told Teacher Magazine shortly after the contest. “Poetry educates the emotions and the imagination, but it also educates you in very practical things like public speaking, clear diction, eye contact, posture. These are not abstract skills—they are skills adults use every day, or adults wish they had to use every day.”
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Gioia himself handed the check for $20,000 in college scholarship funds to the competition’s winner, Jackson Hille, a senior at Ohio’s Columbus Alternative High School. Hille beat out four other final-round candidates with a reading of the Billy Collins poem “Forgetfulness,” a comic depiction of the aging process that the audience appreciated with frequent bouts of laughter.
The cheering crowds and circulating media at the finale vindicated the competition’s goals. “Poetry has always played a part in education,” Gioia said. “What we’re trying to do is make that role a little larger, and a little livelier.”