Student Competition Spurs Interest in Poetry

June 2, 2006 at 4:35 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: This isn’t “American Idol.” It’s a poetry competition. High school students from all 50 states and the District of Columbia battling it out in the first Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest.

STUDENT POET: I acknowledge my status as a stranger.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a collaboration of the National Endowment for the Arts, state arts agencies, and the Poetry Foundation, the NewsHour’s partner in our poetry project.

ANNOUNCER: Our first prize winner, the champion of Poetry Out Loud…

Born of poetry slams

JEFFREY BROWN: The idea, to build on the success of poetry slams...

STUDENT POET: I'm not much different from the girl in the 'hood.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... and rap music...

NOTORIOUS BIG, Rap Artist: Now I'm in the limelight because I rhyme tight.

JEFFREY BROWN: And tap the natural competitiveness of students to bring poetry into the schools in a fresh and exciting way. NEA chairman Dana Gioia is himself an accomplished poet.

DANA GIOIA, Chair, NEA: This is a program which revives a very ancient custom, which is to memorize and recite poems in public, which I think is a great way to learn about literature and it's a great way to learn about speaking and knowing yourself as a public person.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Barr, a published poet and businessman, is president of the Poetry Foundation.

JOHN BARR, President, The Poetry Foundation: A poem is, first of all, an event of the ear, not of the eye, and that the music of the language is really as much a part of the meaning as the sense of the words.

I want them to take away an appreciation for an intimate engagement with a great work of art. And how often does that opportunity arise in our culture today?

Let the competition begin

JEFFREY BROWN: For tens of thousands of high school students around the country, Poetry Out Loud began in the early spring.

TEACHER: So you might take a little bit of time to think, "OK, if I'm telling a story, where would I naturally pause more?"

JEFFREY BROWN: We tracked the process in the District of Columbia, starting in the classroom of English teacher Whitney Warren at Banneker High.

STUDENT POET: He said, again, the fences make good neighbors.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last year, one of Warren's students won a pilot competition for Poetry Out Loud held in Chicago and Washington.

WHITNEY WARREN, Banneker High School: Our students love to perform, and they don't get a lot of outlets for that. So this gives us a really nice balance and allows them to think of poetry as fun. And, ultimately, that's where the joy of learning is.

And it blows your mind when you think this is not a pep rally, this is not a ball game. And listen to these kids: They're cheering. They're holding up signs. And this is poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: For some, the enthusiasm spilled over from the classroom to the street.

STUDENT POET: Beware the Jabberwock, my son, the jaws that bite, that claws that catch -- where the Jubjub bird is shunned.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the individual classrooms at Banneker, a panel of teachers pick semi-finalists to compete at the school's finals. Kofi Afori (ph), a junior, was one of the chosen.

STUDENT POET: The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, came whiffling through the tulgey wood, and burbled as it came. One, two, one, two, and through and through. The vorpal blade went snicker-snack. He left it dead.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here, as around the country, students were judged on pacing...

STUDENT POET: Three, two, one, blast off.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... volume...

STUDENT POET: But he poked out his tongue...

JEFFREY BROWN: ... voice inflection...

STUDENT POET: I know what the cage bird feels.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... posture, presence, and gestures...

STUDENT POET: Ten thousands eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... and, importantly, evidence of understanding. As some found, it's not easy.

STUDENT POET: Oh, my god. Oh. And while the crowd -- and while the crowed cheered...

Students reach the national final

JEFFREY BROWN: From 300 students, Leila Pree emerged as Banneker's winner, reciting "Beautiful Black Men" by Nikki Giovanni.

LEILA PREE, Banneker High School Winner: What I like to hug? Jerry Butler, Wilson Pickett, the Impressions, Temptations, mighty, mighty Sly, don't have to do anything but walk on stage, and I scream, and I step, and I shout! (inaudible) and breed all in Dashiki suits with shirts that match the lining.

JEFFREY BROWN: And after a short celebration, she began preparing for the next round. Students picked from 350 poems, ranging from classics to contemporary, in the Poetry Out Loud anthology.

LEILA PREE: When I look at a poem, I try to figure out where the author is coming from and how this relates to them, and then I can relate it back to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: The next stop for contestants: state or, in this case, district finals. Katherine Feliz learned English and Spanish as a child when her parents moved to Washington from the Dominican Republic.

KATHERINE FELIZ, Washington, D.C., Winner: Let it be forgotten, as a flower is forgotten. Forgotten is a fire that once was singing gold. Let it be forgotten forever and ever. Time is a kind friend.

JEFFREY BROWN: On this day...


JEFFREY BROWN: ... it was Katherine, who wants to be a professional singer, who emerged the winner and moved on to her preparation for the national competition.

KATHERINE FELIZ: I speak loudly and clearly so that everyone can hear me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Feliz has been writing her own poetry, as well as reciting, since she was a young child.

KATHERINE FELIZ: Poetry, it can do a lot of things. It can say how you're feeling. It can say -- it can move people. It can make a person cry, happy, and also it can tell history. I think it just gives out messages, is a powerful way to refer to people's feelings and expressions.

JEFFREY BROWN: In mid-May, the field of thousands had been cut to 51 who gathered inside Washington's Lincoln Theater, on a stage that's featured Duke Ellington and many other greats. One of the judges was E. Ethelbert Miller, a poet based at Howard University.

E. ETHELBERT MILLER, Poet: Maybe because I'm a writer, you know, I'm looking at how a person really, you know, takes the words into themselves. You know, I'm looking at how they digest the words. I'm looking at how the poem is part of their growth.

JEFFREY BROWN: Miller and his fellow judges had a chance to compare various renditions of certain poems. For example, Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California."

STUDENT POET: What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman.

STUDENT POET: I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless.

STUDENT POET: Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour.

Jackson Hille

JEFFREY BROWN: Jackson Hille, a senior at Columbus Alternative High School in Ohio, wowed the crowd with a recitation of Billy Collins' funny and sad poem about aging called "Forgetfulness."

JACKSON HILLE, Winner, Poetry Out Loud: As if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain to a remote fishing village, where there are no phones.


Long ago, you kissed the names of the nine muses good-bye and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag. And even now, as you memorize the order of the planets, something else is slipping away, a state flower, perhaps.


JEFFREY BROWN: And he was declared champion of the first Poetry Out Loud national competition.

ANNOUNCER: The winner of a $20,000 scholarship, Jackson Hille.


JEFFREY BROWN: Not bad for a high school student, and good money for poetry.

JACKSON HILLE: It's pretty awesome. I mean, you don't have something like this come around. I mean, it's my senior year, my last chance at this, and it was something that just sort of clicked with me. And, I mean, I've always believed that every person has that one poem, no matter what they say, that's going to get them.

JEFFREY BROWN: The organizers now hope that poems will get more and more students as the competition expands and grows in the years ahead.