BRATTLEBORO — For 17 years, Poetry Out Loud (POL) has brought poems to life for teenagers, enriching their experience of verse far beyond that of popular music.
On the POL website, the acclaimed program calls itself a “national arts education program that encourages the study of great poetry by offering free educational materials and a dynamic recitation competition for high school students across the country ... [helping] students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about literary history and contemporary life.”
A long claim for short texts? Not really. Beyond the beauty of its composition, its intricacies and nuances, its use of the devices and literary twists that fill a poet's toolbox, a good poem is, itself, an efficient means of digging into abstraction and deep analysis. It's a gem that reflects the culture that created it.
Peter Cannizzaro, a veteran member of the Brattleboro Union High School English faculty and a POL coach, notes, “At BUHS, we have for years introduced a lot of students to poetry through POL. In my mind, this introduction is the single most important thing we can do to get students to hear themselves through another's words.”
* * *
BUHS senior Ada Melton-Houghton, a four-year POL participant, was one of 18 statewide semi-finalists in the March competition at Barre Opera House this year, her third in the semi-finals.
For the competition, she prepared “Jaguar” by Francisco X. Alarcón, “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and “Nowhere Else to Go” by Linda Sue Park.
With depth, wit, irony, and subtle shifts, Melton-Houghton delivered Park's poem for the Barre audience, building the pace effectively from lighthearted and free to intense and emphatic on the final stanza:
Â§Tell ten friends
Â§who can tell ten friends
Â§who can tell ten friends ...
Â§Make enough noise,
Â§maybe the grown-ups
Â§will finally hear
Â§the scream in the title
“Poetry speaks to me personally,” Melton-Houghton says. “If you have an opportunity to recite it for someone else, you can show them how it makes you feel. You can make them feel as you do with words.”
BUHS English teachers perennially encourage students to take a crack at Poetry Out Loud. Melton-Houghton recalls that “in ninth grade, Ms. Appel had us recite a poem in class. She said mine was competition-worthy, so I entered.”
For her evolving love of poetry, Melton-Houghton credits not only the BUHS English faculty, but also her parents, Paula Melton and David Houghton.
“I have them to thank, as well. My mom writes poetry; my dad loves to recite [Robert Burns'] 'To a Mouse' in a bad Scottish accent,” she says with affection.
Melton-Houghton is an actress as well. A budding performance artist, she's comfortable on stage-performing as well as reciting. No doubt her acting chops have helped her with POL.
In terms of delivery, it depends on the poem, she says. “There are some poems in which there's a line at the end that really hits you. You see something the poet did that had an impact and you think about how you can replicate that in a spoken medium.”
She notes the value of working with poetry.
“Not only can a poem be aesthetically pleasing but it can be interesting to hear the poet's words coming from another offering a different twist and point of view.”
Poetry is an essential avenue of expression for Melton-Houghton. Not having made it past the semi-finals, Melton-Houghton says, “I can't say I wasn't disappointed. It was my last chance with Poetry Out Loud,” but she moves on.
What's in the future for Melton-Houghton?
“I don't know,” she says, nodding that these are rough times for youth. “I'd like to do a lot in the arts - drawing, painting, performance art, singing - and I'd like to develop my writing more. It sounds stupid,” she says, “but I love books.”
Not stupid at all, Ada. Not at all.