Sunday, September 12, 2010


A poem is composed of words, not of ideas. A poem should come to you, you should not come to it. Be a tiger, not a rabbit. Don't fold laundry. Don't list your prestigious awards. And for heaven's sake, don't be witless.

Two books on writing and reading are on my morning reading schedule -- Ezra Pound's "ABC of Reading," and William Packard's "The Art of Poetry Writing." Reading both at the same time is enough to give a writer a complex. Reading about writing and reading makes me not want to write. But I do anyway. I respond.

Yesterday, just for the joy of it, I memorized a poem by Vasko Popa. There is no book you can read, no workshop you can take, that can replace the wonder of writing or reading a poem. Memorizing a poem reminds me of why I write. A poem is composed of words that form ideas, that wash empty spaces with emotion, that open entire landscapes. It's exciting to me to memorize the molecules of someone's thoughts. Depending on the poem, it can feel naughtier than opening a letter or a diary. The joy comes in sharing the music of those lines with anyone at any time. I have memorized the poem "by heart," as we say, but really it's "by mind and heart." The words become part of my pulse, part of my synapses.

I have mixed feelings about Poetry Out Loud, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation's high school level contest for poetry recitation. The program has gained popularity over the past few years. Stakes are high. There's a hefty scholarship on the line. Students who move through the ranks memorize several poems, each one of a different time period. Recitations are judged on physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding, and overall performance. An accuracy judge follows the text to make sure the reciter doesn't miss a word. They also act as the prompter if a kid "goes up on a line."

I've judged this contest at various levels and have been stunned by the level of understanding some of the contestants have of the poems they chose to memorize. I've also been one of our regional competition's organizers and felt overwhelmed by the level of administration needed to run a contest like this. One one hand, the students are learning poems that probably would not have learned in school otherwise (there's a paucity of poetry in school). On the other hand, there is little to no follow-through from memorization and appreciation of those poems to writing poems of their own.

The prize of memorizing a poem, of understanding the poem, is just that. You have a poem inside of you forever. A twenty thousand dollar scholarship is great, sure, but money has a way of disappearing. Poems have a way of rumbling around inside of you foreverly.


Jodi Anderson said...

"i carry your heart... "

Oh, hi! Reading this took me right back to sixth grade where, surely, none of the students would be interested in memorizing poetry for extra credit... except, I was. It didn't occur to me until now, but I don't know if we read anything other than Frost and Poe in class.

I have heard of this poetry competition, yet I had no idea that it was based on recitation. I'm a bit slack-jawed and, at the same time, wishing that I'd known of it way back when.

Jenny Hill said...