Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Friday Night with Poetry

Not the most exciting title I've ever put on a blog post, I know. Still ...

I've written here before about memorizing poems. Bear with me ...

(I seem to like ellipses, don't I ...?)

Last night I was one of the judges for the 2nd annual competition up at Western Reserve Academy (a ten-minute walk from our house), part of the national Poetry Out Loud program (funded, I think, by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts)--link to their website.

Competing high school students memorize two poems (from a long list posted by Poetry Out Loud, a list featuring the familiar--"The Road Not Taken"--and the unfamiliar); they range in length, subject matter, difficulty. The winner moves on to state and then to national competitions.

Anyway, I was a judge last year and enjoyed it, so I responded quickly and positively this time when WRA's teacher/organizer, Matt Peterson, invited me again.

We judges sat in the balcony in WRA's historic Chapel (Emerson spoke there, Frederick Douglass just outside; I've spoken there, too--finally, in a list with Emerson and Douglass!), and the kids stood in front of a microphone about as far away as they could get from us.

Each competitor steps to the microphone, announces the title and poet, begins. When words flee a contestant's memory, a prompter, seated directly in front, supplies some help. A few kids needed assistance last night but nothing too extensive.

I can't imagine myself competing in such a program when I was in high school. I was too busy preparing for a double career in the NBA and MLB--point guard for the Celtics (hey, Cousy had to retire sometime!), catcher for the Tribe. I also seemed to be preparing for a career as a Professional Sleeper. I loved to sleep, would always choose it over, say, homework. Or chores.

Our teachers did ask us to memorize poems now and then. I remember Mrs. Davis (senior year) requiring Housman's "When I Was One-and-Twenty" (link). And back in elementary school I memorized (and publicly recited!) "A Visit from St. Nicholas" at a school Christmas program.

When I began teaching in the mid-1960s, asking kids to memorize had fallen from favor ("learning by rote" was a no-no), but as the years went along, I started having kids do it--and by the time I retired from middle school teaching (Jan. 1997) my students were memorizing a dozen pieces a year, and when I went to WRA in 2001, I continued the practice (a dozen a year).

I would memorize the poems, too, and then, the following year, would generally memorize something else by the poet (I was bored). And soon I was memorizing like a madman. Shortly before I retired from WRA (spring 2011), I gave a talk at the school about how I'd just reached 100 memorized poems.

And now, today, I'm working on #160, a lovely poem by Emily Dickinson that was featured on Writer's Almanac the other day: "As Imperceptibly as Grief" (link).

A couple of the poems the kids recited last night are among those I've memorized--Dickinson's "Hope Is the Thing with Feathers" and Frost's "The Road Not Taken"--but for the most part they were pieces I'd not read before--or had forgotten.

As I told Matt afterwards, I was incredibly moved, sitting up there, watching those young people deliver those lines, working to find the right gesture, inflection, pause--increasing, decreasing volume for effect.

Oh, sure, some of the students were better than others; some had memory lapses. Nonetheless, there they stood, alone in front of a microphone, allowing their voices, their bodies, their hearts to connect those poets with the rest of us. A gift I won't forget.

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