Memorizing and reciting great verse kept the epics of the ancient world alive. It helped former hostage Terry Anderson survive years of dismal captivity -- and countless closet poets from losing their sanity in a tin-ear world.
And last night the act of performing classic poems became a group celebration, rather than cutthroat competition, for 24 students from across Colorado joining in the Poetry Out Loud state finals.
Now in its sixth year, Poetry Out Loud seeks to further understanding and appreciation of poetry among high schools students, who vie with classmates for the honor of representing their school at state and ultimately a national final. Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Art and the Poetry Foundation, the event demonstrates that all that's supposed to be creaky and taboo in current education -- memorization and declamation, personal interpretation and a love of the spoken word -- can be refreshingly new again.
"Having beautiful language in your head is one of the great ways of being a human being," declared the evening's master of ceremonies, Colorado poet laureate David Mason.
Mason kept the proceedings at the Lakewood Cultural Center moving smoothly with a stream of genial anecdotes about poets and their work in the intervals between readings. Then a hardy group of performers, many with theater backgrounds, stepped to the mic to urge the audience not to go gently into that good night or to admit no impediment to the marriage of true minds.
The students were required to recite two poems flawlessly from memory, one of which had to be from the nineteenth century or earlier. There were several Longfellows and Millays, an occasional Frost or Dickinson. Ignorant armies clashed by night, and La Belle Dame who so enchanted Keats was still sans merci.
Quinita Thomas of the Colorado School for the Blind knocked 'em dead with her rendition of Allen Ginsberg wandering the aisles of a California supermarket and bumping into his spirit guide:
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eying the grocery boys.
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And Mackenzie Seuss of Palmer High School enthralled with one of the weirder poems by one of our weirdest free-verse pioneers, Stephen Crane, which asks a naked fellow in the desert if he's enjoying snacking on his own heart:
"It is bitter, bitter," he answered; "But I like it Because it is bitter, And because it is my heart."
After two rounds, National Poetry Slam Champion Ken Arkind and other distinguished poet/judges trimmed the field to five finalists. A few minutes later, Mei Mei Pollitt of the Denver School of the Arts scored the runner-up prize with her dramatic rendition of "La Belle Dame," and Thornton High's Samuel Opoku, an immigrant from a Ghana with a masterful sense of phrasing, took top honors with "Early Affection," by George Moses Horton.
Opoku will represent Colorado in the national finals in Washington D.C. in April, where the first prize is a hefty $20,000. It might also be the last such prize; although last night proved the enduring appeal of beautiful language, beautifully spoken, the NEA budget is in the crosshairs of lawmakers, and it's possible Poetry Out Loud will be silenced.