Students shine at Poetry Out Loud Finals

After months of preparation, the Poetry Out Loud state championship took place March 13 in Frankfort at the Capital Plaza Hotel. The winner, Taryn Syck, of Pike County Central High School, will travel April 28-30 to Washington, D.C., for the National Poetry Out Loud Championship to represent Kentucky. While she was a tough competitor through the first two rounds, it was Syck’s third poem, “The Great Blue Heron,” by Carolyn Kizer, that put her on top.

I love the moment when everything comes together: The words, the delivery and the passion. Before I became the arts education director for the Kentucky Arts Council, I was not overly impressed with the Poetry Out Loud program. I did not appreciate the value of reciting poetry written by other people. I have seen some very powerful performances at high school poetry slams. So I believed having students perform their own poetry would be much more effective.

Today, I understand the value of this kind of poetry recitation. All 14 school champions were impressive. I am so glad I was not a judge. Each student in the program had been coached by one of the arts council’s teaching artists. They won their school competitions to advance to the state finals. All competitors recited two poems and then five finalists made it to the final round.

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Mary Hamilton, one of the teaching artists that worked with the champions, attended Thursday’s championship and later shared some of her thoughts about the day with me.

“There were three specific performances today that, if they would be available for Kentucky Poetry Out Loud programs to view, would provide excellent examples of very specific performance successes,” she said.

“Beautiful Wreckage” — recited by Titus Carter — “That recitation was stunning, absolutely stunning. He so captured the emotion of that poem. A video of that performance would provide a wonderful demonstration of how thrilling and amazing a recitation can be when the student allows their emotional connection to the poem to come charging through.  So many young men tend to be exceedingly reluctant to allow feelings to show. I think providing his recitation of ‘Beautiful Wreckage’ as an example of an emotional connection to a poem would especially encourage young men to give themselves the permission he clearly gave himself for that recitation.”

“I Remember, I Remember”  recited by Gabrielle Thompson  “That recitation provides a fantastic example of how pauses are not empty, but full. The spaces between the two ‘I Remembers’ at the beginning of each section were handled superbly. Sitting in the audience we could feel strongly that all memories are not remembered the same way. Her face, voice, and especially her communication during pauses, were wonderful to behold.”

“Famous”  recited by Haley Reed  “This is a lighter poem, and Haley did a marvelous job of clearly conveying the lighthearted nature and even the humor within the poem. There was also a clear change from when she was talking in third person and in first person. I considered it a wonderful example  well worth providing for future Poetry Out Loud students.”

Each of these performances, as well as Taryn Syck’s recitation of the “Great Blue Heron,” will soon be available on the arts council’s website. I invite you to visit our website to view these amazing performances by high school youth. And, next year, I hope other teachers and schools across the state will give their high school students the opportunity to participate in the Poetry Out Loud program.

Jean St. John, arts education director

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