Poetry Out Loud
Bringing literary opportunities to area high school students
Wynton Gage, a senior at Southeast High School, has a deep voice made for TV or radio. At the recent Regional Poetry Out Loud contest he commanded the stage during his memorized recitations of “Four Glimpses of Night” by Frank Marshall Davis and “The Universe as Primal Scream” by Tracy K. Smith. Wynton was named the winner.
Awarded runner-up was Cole White from Pawnee High School. His recitations included “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley and “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. He and Wynton will be competing at the state competition on March 9 in Springfield.
Poetry Out Loud competition was begun in 2005 by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation in partnership with state arts agencies. To date, 10,000 high schools in the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have participated, with 50,000 teachers and 3 million students involved.
Students select from an anthology of 900 classic and/or contemporary poems to memorize and recite. They first compete in their classroom, then in a schoolwide competition. Winners advance to the regional and finally national competition. The eight Illinois regions each choose two competitors for the statewide competition.
For Sheila Walk, the interim director of the Springfield Area Arts Council, and a former teacher at Ursuline Academy, the contest “mirrors what I loved about teaching – students finding what they’re good at. I tell the contestants that if their school’s athletic team were going to regional or state, it would be a big deal. Well, it is also a big deal for these students to be going to regional or state.”
Southeast High School considers the poetry contest a big deal. English teacher Joni Paige helped build interest among the other teachers many years ago. She says, “Our Poetry Out Loud legacy has become as much a point of pride at Southeast as our girls track team and boys basketball.” Southeast has had an impressive run. A Southeast student won state in 2015, and another won state in both 2016 and 2017.
Twenty-one students from central Illinois recited their poems Feb. 21 at the Hoogland Center for the regional competition. Two rounds of recitations are required. Each student stands alone on stage, watched by a theater full of other contestants, teachers and spectators. Three judges, never given the name of a contestant’s home school, mark points in four areas: physical presence (comfort and poise), voice and articulation (clearness and pacing), dramatic appropriateness (gestures and movements) and evidence of understanding the poem’s meaning. The recitation is not a dramatic reading; students make very little movement, and judges are looking for those hand and facial gestures that truly convey a meaning of the poem that is essential to better understanding.
The students, some who have only met each other the day of the competition, support each other. Walk says, “They discover similarities, and form a group that cares about each other even though they are competing against each other.”
Wynton Gage chose poems written by black authors. “Poetry isn’t seen as part of the black community, but there are great poets. Since February is Black History Month and the competition is held in February it seemed fitting.”
He practiced, stanza by stanza, in front of a mirror and recorded himself to check for pacing. His schoolmates cheered him on, and he went from class to class for two days prior to the regional competition to recite his poems.
Wynton is a singer who wants to study music performance and eventually become a college professor. To him singing and poetry recitation are very different. “In singing there is a melody; in poetry recitation just the words.”
Cole White, a junior at Pawnee High School, is also a singer, having the lead male role in the upcoming school production, Rock of Ages. His mother always encouraged him to memorize poems, so it was easy choosing the poems for the competition. He then worked on expression and pacing. “There is the same philosophy in singing and reciting,” White said. “Sing the right notes, but hit the right notes for a poem through expression.”
The state winner receives $200, and the school library receives $500 for poetry-related materials. A runner-up receives $100; the school receives $200.
The state winner, along with a chaperone, receives an all-expense-paid trip to the national competition held in Washington, D.C. The national winner receives $20,000.
The state-level competition is harder than the regional. Two rounds of recitations narrow the field to the top five students. These five then recite a third prepared poem; one person is named the Illinois state champion.
On March 9, the 16 students from across Illinois will compete at the state competition. Southeast and Pawnee high schools will be cheering for their respective competitors, Wynton and Cole.
State Competition March 9, 10 a.m. Hoogland Center for the Arts.Free and
open to the public.
Cinda Ackerman Klickna is a former