BARRE >> Poetry Out Loud has revived the tradition of memorizing poems and reciting them before an audience. Since 2006, The National Endowment for the Arts and The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, have partnered with state arts organizations in administering the program nation-wide. In Vermont, the Vermont Arts Council runs the contest.
Thirty-eight students competed in the 2016 Vermont POL semi-finals in March, reciting the poem each had memorized. Ten finalists recited their second poem. The three highest scorers recited their third poem, after which Maggie Fitzgerald from Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington was named the Vermont POL 2016 State Champion. Runner-up Anna Van Dine is from Harwood Union High School in Moretown. Fitzgerald will compete at the national finals in Washington, D. C., on May 3 and 4.
At all levels of the contest — local, regional, state, national — the poems students choose to memorize must be selected from the official Poetry Out Loud website, which offers contestants a mix of both classic and contemporary poems.
Three Windham County high school students competed in the 2016 Vermont semi-finals at the Barre Opera House.
Kaya Dean, a sophomore at Brattleboro Union High School, first competed in her school's POL competition as a freshman, and she tied for second place. For this year's contest, she memorized three new poems, because, she said, "I figured I should memorize more." The first poem she chose to memorize was "Diameter" by Michelle Y. Burke, which Dean liked because of the mythological references in it, and because "the language was plain, but the message was still profound."
The other poems she chose were "In the Desert" by Stephen Crane, which she said is very short and which she liked "because it was brief but powerful; its brevity added to its power," and "The Daring One" by Edwin Markham, which appealed to Dean because she "liked the meter of it; I'd never done a poem that had a strong meter before."
Dean said she finds memorizing easy, which she attributes to her participation in lots of theater, both at school and at New England Youth Theater (since she was 8). This summer she is playing Masha in the NEYT production of Anton Chekhov's "The Three Sisters."
Recently, Dean said, she has been reading a lot of Charles Bukowski. Her own writing, which she started in seventh grade, she keeps in an archive. In it are "all the poems I've written, good or bad," she said, "and I add to it every once in a while. I often write songs. I have a ukulele. I sit down and figure out a strong pattern. It's all very casual and free-flow."
The idea of reciting at the state level, Dean said, made her kind of scared at first because she wasn't sure if other contestants would be pretentious or nice, but she found "everyone amazingly kind, just sitting in the audience and smiling. It was nice to be in a group of people who wanted to be there and doing well, but who could be nice at the same time."
She offered an example of the group's kindness.
"One boy forgot his words," she said. "My heart broke for him. Everyone was so supportive. He got back on stage and recited his poem. He was really good, too."
Megan Kehoe attends Twin Valley High School in Wilmington. After a competition in her junior English class, she was chosen to compete in the state semi-finals.
"I have not competed in POL before," she said in an email interview. "The competition was introduced this year by my English teacher, Mr. Mehegan. The opportunity was given exclusively to my class, which held an in-class competition. The two finalists performed again in front of faculty and several students. I then went to POL after our scores were assessed."
The first poem Kehoe memorized was "Joy of My Life, Full Oft for Loving You," by Edmund Spenser, which she found "especially appealing because of the use of language. It was much older than any of my other poems, and it was a change from the type of poetry I read on my own time. It was fun to memorize and recite for that reason."
Her second poem was "Across the Bay," by Donald Davie; she said she was drawn to the meaning of the poem, which pertains to youth. She recited both of these poems for her school competition and at the state semi-finals.
Her third choice, which she did not have the opportunity to recite, was "The Way It Sometimes Is," by Henry Taylor, which is, she said, "more like poetry I read and write. It was light-hearted and interesting. Most of all, it was about the simplicity of memory and the impact it has on individuals. I appreciated that."
Kehoe said she has always been involved in theater and music, although she finds it difficult to commit her time right now, as she is focused on school. She also writes, but not for competition.
"I just enjoy putting my thoughts down," she said. "Most of the time, my work is spontaneous. I just write to put my feelings on paper and experiment with the language I have a passion for. Writing, like any other form of art, is meant as a means of expression and inspiration."
As did Dean, Kehoe found her experience at the semi-finals a pleasant one.
"I participate in sports all throughout the year," Kehoe said, "and competition is a part of my everyday life. Though I am sure everyone was there to try their hardest and hoped to succeed, each contestant was friendly, helpful, and excited to be there. It was an air I am unaccustomed to in competition."
Jocelyn Trendell, the third Windham County student who competed at the POL semi-finals, is a student at Vermont Academy. She was unavailable for an interview.
The winner at the Vermont state level receives $200 and an all-expenses-paid trip with an adult chaperone to Washington, D. C., to compete for the national championship. The state winner's school receives a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books. The first runner-up receives $100, with $200 for his or her school library. A total of $50,000 in awards and school stipends is awarded annually at the national finals.
According to the POL website, poetry fans who can't attend the live event can cheer on their state champions with a live, one-time only webcast of both the semifinals and the finals. Viewers can make it social by organizing a Poetry Out Loud webcast viewing party. To register, go to arts.gov; also available there are tips on hosting the party, as well as promotional materials, and details on other viewing parties around the country. Follow the Poetry Out Loud National Finals on Twitter at @PoetryOutLoud and @NEAarts, #POL16. For more information on the event, webcast, or viewing parties, visit arts.gov or call 202-682-5606.
Nancy A. Olson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.