Late Saturday afternoon and early spring sunlight flooded the already overly warm Chapel at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Teachers, parents, siblings, and lots of onlookers had all come together to cheer on the participants in the annual Poetry Out Loud recitation competition.
Most of the audience had been there since morning, I learned, patiently listening and waiting for the results from each passing round of sem-finals. It’s not an easy process, but the experience is invaluable and the top performer advances to the national finals in Washington, DC on April 26-27, where $50,000 dollars in scholarships and school prizes will be awarded.
The idea is for students to pick a few poems from the national program’s approved list of poems, memorize them, share them in the classroom, and then move on to the statewide – and possibly national – competition. This year’s event featured 33 students from schools around the state, all high school-aged, each one reading selections from the list.
By the time I got there in the afternoon the 12 semi-finalists had already been selected. They each read a poem, and then, in turn following a short intermission, they all read a second poem. After another intermission the judges selected five finalists, and then, the winner: Sharon Academy’s John Marshall. He recited Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy-Cat; John Clare’s I Am!, and then finally Possible Answers to Prayer by Scott Cairns.
It was inspiring to watch the passion and investment of each student in the poems they selected. From the old man trying on scratched sunglasses in Ted Kooser’s In the Basement of the Goodwill Store to the disquieting dialogue in Ai’s Conversation, each recitation strove to embody the voice of the poem and convey the ultimate essence of its meaning.
John Marshall was selected to advance to the national finals, and he’ll also be in the Cedar Creek Room at the State House, March 17th at 4pm, for a recitation of two poems as part of Vermont’s annual Arts Advocacy Day.
Abigail Volmer, a senior at Saint Johnsbury Academy, was the runner up in this year’s competition.
Poetry Out Loud is presented by the Vermont Arts Council in partnership with the Vermont Alliance for Arts Education, the Vermont Department of Education and the Vermont Humanities Council, and sponsored by Vermont College of Fine Arts.