Here’s one final thought for National Poetry Month. When I was in fourth grade, my teacher was Mrs. Flannery. Some days I loved her; some days I hated her. She challenged me; she expected great things from all of her students and she was sensitive to kids who had no academic opportunities outside of her class. She could also be mean (according to the solipsist sensibilities of a fourth grader), her breath smelled like cough drops and she gave us hours of homework every night. But the cruelest thing she did was make us recite poetry on Fridays.
We had one week to memorize a poem she chose from her personal literary canon then accurately recite it in front of the entire class. The first poem given to us was “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. The rhyming verse was helpful in remembering each line, and most students who even tried were able to recite it with proficiency. The room sizzled with suppressed snickers every time one of us said “against the earth’s sweet flowing breast” and “upon whose bosom snow has lain.” The mood was much more somber when we learned about the deaths of Joyce Kilmer and fellow World War I poet Wilfred Owen. “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” which we thankfully did not have to recite, may have traumatized a few of us.
Through the school year we spent Friday afternoons listening to each other soar or struggle with poems. Some were funny; we each recited Shel Silverstein’s “Sick,” which spoke directly to us as kids with perpetual spring fever. Some were exciting; we especially got into the galloping action of “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Others were boring; hearing Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowing Evening” 30 times consecutively should be prohibited by the Geneva Convention.
This was not mere memorization and regurgitation. I know these poems, and I can recite significant portions of them to this day. I appreciate them for different reasons. I even have educated opinions about them, and I can tell you about their authors. Mrs. Flannery gave me more than A’s and B pluses. She made me well-rounded and reflective. She also gave me pride and helped me overcome nagging fears.
When I think of nine-year-old-me, I imagine the self-conscious fat kid with a gap in her front teeth, standing to recite a century-old poem (usually fairly well) and sitting down with a red face flushed with embarrassment. This kid is the same 17-year-old who effortlessly stood in front of a room of peers and superiors at the Governor’s School for the Arts commencement and eloquently read her own poetry.
If you’re not impressed with the intangible benefits of poetry recitation, I can certainly understand. It’s true that these same ends can be achieved through music, sports, debate and other worthy pursuits. But before you pass final judgment, I encourage you to cheer for Kentucky’s Poetry Out Loud state champion, Curtlyn Kramer, as she participates in the national championship, May 13 – 15, in Washington, D.C. This competition comes with scholarships, prestige for her community and monetary awards for her school. This “kid reciting poetry” will be vying for glory and reward equal to athletes, academic teams and young musicians. Those types of benefits are irrefutable.
Sarah Schmitt, arts access director