How to get students to recite poetry

At this new competition, high-schoolers will compete for $10,000 in prizes

How to get students to recite poetry

Photograph By Jessica Darmanin

Lily MacLeod is an A student who loves fashion, has recorded her own songs, written a screenplay, acted in school dramas, and is eyeing the Olympics as a provincially ranked beach volleyball athlete. But these days what gets her really stoked is reciting dead poets. She’s especially fond of a 1922 sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay, especially the last wistful Twitter-length couplet, which she rhymes off by heart with a sigh: ” ‘A ghost in marble of a girl you knew / Who would have loved you in a day or two.’ I know I’m only 17, but every time I say that, it gives me shivers.”

Forget the urban scenesters who spar at poetry slams with volleys of self-styled spoken word. MacLeod belongs to a new breed of dead poets society, a group of teens who will compete for serious cash by reciting literary classics. A student at Toronto’s Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute, she is one of a dozen finalists drawn from contests at 12 Ontario secondary schools who will compete in the inaugural Poetry In Voice recitation contest on April 12 at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. They’ve each selected three poems to perform from an online list of 200 titles, and they’ll be vying for a total purse of $10,000, with $5,000 going to the winner.

Poetry In Voice was created by philanthropist Scott Griffin, founder of the annual Griffin Poetry Prize, the world’s richest English-language poetry award, which splits $130,000 between a Canadian and international contender. Poetry In Voice, says Griffin, is designed to spread the love of poetry to a wider audience and reintroduce oral skills to schools. “It’s really caught the imagination of students,” he says. The contest is due to expand to Quebec next year, and go nationwide by 2013—like Poetry Out Loud, its U.S. equivalent, which began in 2006 and last year involved 325,000 students across America.

Next week six judges, including award-winning poets Dennis Lee and Karen Solie, will evaluate the Ontario finalists, using criteria as complex as those for figure skating. Students will be marked for accuracy, body language, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding and “appropriateness of dramatization.” The last point is tricky. Guidelines warn that recitation is not theatre, and marks will be docked for “affected character voices and accents… singing, distracting and excessive gestures, or unnecessary emoting.”

Recitation “is not like anything else,” says MacLeod, who will also read Yeats and Apollinaire. “I love being onstage, but it’s not acting. It’s a mix. Even when it’s not my poem, the way I translate it into my life feels really personal.” MacLeod’s favorite poet, Margaret Atwood, is not on the list. (Until permissions are arranged, contemporary authors are not included.) But Atwood, one of the Griffin trustees, is keen on the contest. “Memorizing a poem is an intimate way of getting to know it inside out,” she told Maclean’s. “It reconnects the poem with the speaking voice, which is where it came from. And it will get students interested in form. They’ll no longer say, ‘Why couldn’t they just spit it out—war is hell, love is great—why does it have to be stretched out into four stanzas?’ They will understand a lot more about language and its sensual elements.”

Like public speaking, recitation can also build a student’s confidence. For Spencer Slaney, a 15-year-old finalist who stands six foot seven, “this was a challenge that came along at the right time,” says Gary McKinny, his French teacher at Sudbury’s Lockerby Composite School. Slaney performed Baudelaire’s Spleen in French, “a classic poem with some very obscure words,” says McKinny. “It was amazing to see how it jelled with his personality. Almost as if the poet was in the room.” Some of Slaney’s friends scoffed at his new poetry kick, but he was unfazed. “This,” he says, “could take me places.”

Noting that poetry recitation was once all the rage, Atwood cites the episode in Anne of Green Gables in which Anne competes with a professional reciter, wowing Gilbert with her passion. When Lily MacLeod performed Apollinaire in French at her school, there were some hoots and whistles from the boys. Poets, even dead ones, still have the power to turn young heads.

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