PROVIDENCE — On a recent Sunday afternoon, 15 students from high schools throughout Rhode Island sat in a semi-circle on the stage of the RISD Museum of Art Metcalf Auditorium, nervously preparing for the competition ahead. All of the students had been selected to represent their high schools at Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation competition during which students compete to put on the best performance of a classic or contemporary poem. The program, sponsored at the state level by the RI State Council on the Arts, VSA Arts and the RI Teaching Artist Center, has engaged more than 3 million students nationwide since its founding in 2005.
As the lights dimmed and the introductory speeches drew to a close, Anna Coolman, a junior from St. Patrick Academy, Providence, stepped forward to recite the first poem of the day. Like her fellow competitors, Coolman first got involved with Poetry Out Loud at her high school, where her teacher held a classroom competition to determine who would represent St. Patrick’s at the State Finals. High school representatives compete for a trip to the National Finals in Washington D.C., where they could earn up to a $20,000 scholarship and the title of National Champion.
The competition progressed quickly at the State Finals, where each student recited two to three poems – depending on whether they made it into the final round – from memory and was rated by a panel of judges on qualities such as physical presence, articulation and accuracy. Students choose their poems from an anthology of more than 900, allowing for great diversity in style and theme. Coolman’s first poem, “Song of the Powers,” takes the rock, paper and scissors of the classic children’s game and portrays them as if locked in a sinister battle.
“I picked that because I thought it was kind of intriguing how this guy came up with it,” she said during an interview at St. Patrick’s prior to the competition.
Students spend several weeks preparing their poems, using any tactic they can to commit them to memory and perfect their style. While Coolman said she listens to recordings of the poems every night on YouTube, Conor Smith, a senior at Portsmouth Abbey, prefers to practice onstage. The Wednesday prior to the competition, he could be found rehearsing in the Portsmouth Abbey auditorium, where English department head Michael Bonin and performing arts head Jay Bragan offered pointers as he recited.
“When I really figure out a line in one of these poems that I’m studying, you get that little bit of excitement,” said Smith, who took on the persona of a dog for his recitation of “Golden Retrievals” by Mark Doty.
Like many of the teachers involved with Poetry Out Loud, Bragan sees the competition as a chance to reassert the importance of memorizing and reciting poetry, a one-time staple of English classes that has been largely replaced with studying poems on the page. Bragan organizes a poetry group at a local assisted living facility and said that while the elderly residents can often recite poems they were required to memorize as children, his own students are more likely to come to class having never read a poem aloud.
“If you talk to anyone who is 80 or above, they had to memorize poems. They are so schooled in many poems, it existed in the curriculum when they were kids,” he said.
According to Bonin, the school tries to introduce recitation and other forms of public speaking early on in the curriculum to help students develop the performance and language skills that will help them further on in their academic and professional careers. Competitions like Poetry Out Loud give students an opportunity to practice these skills, especially those students who might not otherwise get involved in performing arts.
“We see some really amazing performances from students that we would’ve never guessed,” said Bonin. “And that’s one of those things I think we enjoy most about it.”
Dylan Temel, a junior at Bishop Hendricken High School, had little exposure to poetry prior to his freshman year. Two years ago, he began participating in Poetry Out Loud at the school level and this year represented Bishop Hendricken at the State Finals, where he recited Richard Wilbur’s “Advice to a Prophet” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 15.”
“When I went to high school, that was the first time I started reading and writing poetry and it just opened a whole new world,” he told Rhode Island Catholic following the competition.
For Coolman, participating in the competition is about more than just memorizing poems. Diagnosed with high-functioning anxiety disorder, she spent many years working to arrive at a point where she was comfortable performing onstage. In the past, she tried to compete in Poetry Out Loud but was unable to due to her anxiety.
“I’ve been working for a long time on trying to do this kind of stuff, so now it’s great that I can,” she said. “I didn’t think that I’d be interested in poetry before I was forced to memorize one.”
Coolman’s English teacher, Brett Summers, requires all her students to participate in Poetry Out Loud at the school level. Though students will occasionally request to be moved later in the program while they work up the nerve to recite in front of their classmates, she said all her students have the chance to memorize and perform a poem by the end of the day.
“That’s a good feeling when you expose someone to something they feel threatened by and then they realize after it was a good experience,” she said.
As each participant took the microphone at the State Finals, they were greeted by the loud applause of the audience, as well as their fellow competitors, who cheered eagerly for each other from the stage. In the end, Simon Rabatin of Moses Brown School took first place, wowing the judges with his dramatic recitation of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” in the final round. For the rest of the competitors, who left the auditorium smiling, the chance to share their newfound love of poetry from the stage was its own reward.
“It’s not just about winning and losing,” said Coolman. “It’s about, ‘I have three poems now that I can recite at the drop of a pen.’”