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Vermont State Poet Laureate Chard deNiord.

The Arts

More than words

Poetry Out Loud competition seeks to keep the oral storytelling tradition alive for a new generation

BRATTLEBORO—The great poet Wystan H. Auden once wrote, “But poetry makes nothing happen.”

And a few years later, wisely, he reversed himself.

Poetry makes many things happen, especially when it comes alive in the minds of high school students.

On Friday, Dec. 16, at 2 p.m., at Brattleboro Union High School, the school will present its eighth annual Poetry Out Loud Competition.

Poetry Out Loud, which grows more in popularity each year, is a national poetry recitation competition for high school students.

Its curriculum materials include an online poetry anthology, a comprehensive teacher’s guide, videos of student performances, lesson plans, and promotional and media guides. Hard copies of materials are free for teachers participating in the official program.

In Vermont, Poetry Out Loud is a joint venture of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Vermont Arts Council. State Poet Laureate Chard deNiord will make the opening comments at the competition.

“It’s exciting to see students catch fire with poetry and live with language,” deNiord said. “It’s ‘the news that stays the news,’ as Ezra Pound once said. Someone falls in love with a poem and it stays with them for the rest of their life. They carry it around in their heads. They can tap this vital verbal story that pertains to their lives.”

Celebrating oral tradition

Our culture lost something with the invention of the printing press, deNiord said.

“It ended a centuries-old oral tradition — one that goes further back than Homer — and competitions like this one restore the strength of language.”

As an example, he quoted lines by the Roman poet Cattulus: “I hate and I love/You may ask how this is possible/I don’t know/But it’s happening right now/And it hurts.”

“This is the kind of meaningful poem for someone who is ambivalent about something right now,” DeNiord said. “Young people are hungry for stories that can stay with them. This is something we’ve lost that is coming back.”

At BUHS, some English classes offer Poetry Out Loud as an elective and some as a requirement. Students who aren’t in an English class this year may also compete.

In order to compete, BUHS students have to find poems that speak to them, memorize them, rehearse their performance, and then participate in classroom competitions where their teacher is the judge.

The winners qualify for the Dec. 16 school competition, where they will be judged by a panel of experts from the community. This year’s judges are former BUHS English Department chair Nancy Olson, who began the competition eight years ago; Ricky Davidson, executive of the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro; and Dr. Leigh Marthe.

The winner of the school competition goes on to compete at the Vermont Semi-Finals and Finals. At least one BUHS student was once a runner-up at the state level.

Winners to Washington

State winners and their chaperones travel to Washington, D.C., in the spring for the National competition, where college scholarships are just some of the prizes.

“There’s scholarship money once the kids get to the national level, but we really do love this competition for the exposure to poetry,” said Peter J. Cannizzaro, chair of the English Department. “We want [kids] to know that poetry can span all kinds of lives and experiences. We hope that they can find in poetry some connection to their own existence.”

The students choose their poems from the Poetry Out Loud collection ( “They memorize the poems and perform them,” Cannizzaro said. “They are judged on such things as physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, and overall performance.”

Some 15 to 20 students recite at each school-wide competition, Cannizzaro said.

“Sometimes we’ve had as many as 60 or 70 or maybe even a couple more than that,” Cannizzaro said.

The event is free and popular. The audience is drawn from students, parents, and members of the community.

“I’m happy to say that every year one of the a cappella groups from the school joins us, and we usually get a really good audience,” Cannizzaro said. “And at least one elementary school is busing in kids to join us.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #387 (Wednesday, December 14, 2016). This story appeared on page B1.

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