“Poetry is a compressed way of expressing experience and that’s very powerful enlightenment.” — Ray Tatar, California Arts Council
Talk about experience; Feb. 2 was the first time I got all nervous-sweaty about poetry. Normally, I receive a poem a day on my computer, but other than that, poetry is not a big part of my life.
But I sweated for poetry on Feb. 2 when I agreed to do a job and then had a hard time doing it.
I had been invited to serve as a judge of the Poetry Out Loud contest in El Dorado County, where my husband and I have a second home. The Poetry Out Loud competition is nationwide, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.
High school students choose poems from a national list and memorize them. Then they recite in class, with winners moving on to a schoolwide event and eventually to the county and state competitions. California’s winner competes in Washington, D.C., where the grand prize is $20,000.
El Dorado County is in its second year.
I’ve always been lukewarm to student contests because my sympathies tend to lie with the losers, but Poetry Out Loud felt different. First, the students are old enough to understand that winning and losing is about a particular skill, not about them as people.
Second, I believe in promoting poetry because it involves emotion and feeling, parts of ourselves that get left behind in our mechanized, speeded-up world.
Like music, poetry gives us a way to weep, to rejoice, to experience something in solitude — and to share. A former California winner said, “It’s so gratifying to the soul to experience thinking someone else’s thoughts but making them your own.”
Students can choose poems so short that even I could memorize them or poems so long that I’m astounded anyone can retain and recite them. Some poems have easier vocabulary than others. Some have easier ideas. My job as a judge involved rating the poems for difficulty before the contest.
I did this about a week early, at which point I was getting excited. None of the poems were personal favorites, but I understood them, and I looked forward to hearing a better rendition than I was able to create in my mind.
The students’ task is to bring the poem to life. The judge’s task is to rate the presentation on six criteria, including articulation, poise, dramatic appropriateness and understanding.
I couldn’t practice that part at home, but I figured that with 90 seconds for judging after each poem, I could do it.
The night of the contest I drove to the El Dorado County event and walked into a spare, dark auditorium. The contestants were on stage trying the microphone for what probably was the first time.
I sat down in a narrow seat, introduced myself to the four other judges and arranged my clipboard on my lap. I shifted around my flashlight until I figured out how to see my score sheet.
Then the whole thing began.
Most poems were only a minute or two long. That part was OK. But filling out the score sheet was like suddenly being shot out of a cannon. I needed to listen, react, analyze, and circle numbers — fast. It didn’t help that the master of ceremonies forgot that judges were supposed to get 90 seconds and gave us only 15. (This was later corrected.)
I started wildly marking things, never sure I remembered correctly. Was this the student who pronounced an important word wrong in the first line? Was this the one who provided a fabulous pause between stanzas? As I tried to take in new data as fast as I could, old data flew out of my mind. I felt hot. My pencil started slipping in my hand.
Hoping my scores were not out of line with the others, I passed them in. “I can only try my best,” I said to myself, but with each reciter I vowed to take in more information. It was like accelerating in fog.
When I described my struggle afterward to Davis poet laureate Allegra Silberstein she said, “When you’re getting caught up in a poem, it’s hard to notice other details.” Maybe that was part of the problem.
Eventually, scores were tabulated and Rebecca Shields from Oak Ridge High School won. The students who didn’t win didn’t look too dejected. No one cried.
I felt like a limp rag.
Even though judging individuals had been difficult, I judge the whole contest worthwhile.
The most valuable part is the part I didn’t see: the effort to prepare. Students uninterested in poetry gave it a chance, students with no practice memorizing things discovered they could do it, students looking for a way to get close to emotion found it in words, gestures or sound.
A quote I find especially compelling is from the 2006 national winner, Jackson Hille of Ohio. He said, “Everyone’s got that one poem that will get them, no matter what. They just haven’t heard it yet.”
“Get them” is an odd phrase, but I know what he means. Connect. Move. Teach. Reveal.
Poetry got me, too. In the solar plexus.
Marion Franck is a part-time resident of El Dorado County, with her primary residence in Davis. She writes a weekly column for the Davis Enterprise. Her column appears occasionally in the Mountain Democrat.