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Competition Reviving the Art of Reciting Poetry

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Until the 1950s, memorizing and reciting poetry was a part of every schoolchild’s life—often a burdensome one. As Catherine Robson explains in her history of this educational practice, Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, our nostalgia for a golden age of poem memorization is a bit too rosy-colored. The common lament goes that it was a time when we really cared whether students learned to appreciate great works of literature and become skilled orators, but instead it often fostered a lifelong fear of public speaking (fertilized by public humiliation and the teacher’s whip) and an association of poetry with drudgery.

Which is a shame, because as Robson puts it, “if we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”

For 10 years now, the national Poetry Out Loud competition has given students a chance to experience poetry in this personal, physical way. Students compete at the school level to represent their state, and state winners are flown to Washington, DC for a live performance at the National Finals. By all accounts, they love it. They get to pick the poem they will learn, and by memorizing and performing it they gain a deeper understanding of its meaning.

The finals took place a few weeks ago, and the winner was Maeva Ordaz of Senior West Anchorage High School in Anchorage, AK. This was her third time participating in the competition. Here is her winning performance of “Zacuanpapalotls” by Brenda Cárdenas.

Competitors are judged on the following criteria: physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of complexity, evidence of understanding, overall performance, and accuracy. Congratulations to Ms. Ordaz for nailing all of them!

The second-place winner was Paris J. Stroud of Paulding County High School in Dallas, Ga. and in third place was Casey Ryan Goggin of Pinecrest High School in Pinhurst, N.C.

According to Ms. Ordaz, reciting connects her not just to poetry, but to history. “Even though I may be reciting a poem from Keats from several hundred years ago, I am still able to connect with that. It ties me into the rest of humanity and all the writers who've come before me.”

Here she is, giving new life to that old Keats classic, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Poetry Out Loud is sponsored by National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Find out about getting your school involved.

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How the Civil War Inspired 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day'
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It may not be as popular as "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a holiday classic. In case you need a refresher, here’s Bing Crosby’s rendition:

Nearly 10 years before it was a song, the composition was a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem called “Christmas Bells.” It had been a tough couple of years for Longfellow. In 1861, his wife suffered a terrible death right in front of his eyes. Fanny Longfellow had been trimming their 7-year-old daughter’s hair and decided to preserve some of the curls in sealing wax. Something went wrong during the process—some say a gust of wind blew the hot wax onto her dress, while others blame a self-lighting match—and Fanny's dress went up in flames. She ran into her husband’s study for help; he burned himself badly trying to put her out. But his efforts were for naught; she died the next morning and he was too injured to attend her funeral.

In 1863, their 17-year-old son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, ran away to enlist in the Union Army. He left his father a note, explaining, "You know for how a long time I have been wanting to go to war I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer, I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good God Bless you all."

The commanding officer knew the family and contacted the elder Longfellow, who gave his consent despite being very much against it. Charley hadn’t been in the service long when he contracted malaria and typhoid fever and had to come home to recover. Though he was gravely ill, the diseases turned out to be a blessing in disguise: While he was at home getting well, Charley missed the Battle of Gettysburg, which killed or wounded more than 51,000 soldiers. Charley returned to his post in August, and on December 1, his father received devastating news: His young son had been shot during the Battle of Mine Run on November 27, with a bullet clipping his spine. Surgeons warned the family that Charles may never walk again.

Amazingly, Charley made a full recovery. But when Longfellow put pen to paper to write “Christmas Bells,” he definitely had the horrors of the Civil War on his mind. Composer John Baptiste Calkin put the words to music in 1872, but when you hear the song performed these days, the two verses that obviously refer to the War Between the States are usually left out:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

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Vivid Imagery Makes Poetry More Pleasurable, According to Psychologists
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Contrary to what English teachers led us to believe, most readers don’t judge poetry based on factors like alliteration and rhyme. In fact, a new study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts suggests that vivid imagery (i.e. sense-evoking description) is what makes a poem compelling, according to Smithsonian.

To determine why some poetic works are aesthetically pleasing while others are less so, researchers from New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, had more than 400 online volunteers read and rate 111 haikus and 16 sonnets. Participants answered questions about each one, including how vivid its imagery was, whether it was relaxing or stimulating, how aesthetically pleasing they found it, and whether its content was positive or negative.

Not surprisingly, taste varied among subjects. But researchers did find, overall, that poems containing colorful imagery were typically perceived as more pleasurable. (For example, one favorite work among subjects described flowers as blooming and spreading like fire.) Emotional valence—a poem's emotional impact—also played a smaller role, with readers ranking positive poems as more appealing than negative ones. Poems that received low rankings were typically negative, and lacked vivid imagery.

Researchers think that vivid poems might also be more interesting ones, which could explain their popularity in this particular study. In the future, they hope to use similar methodology to investigate factors that might influence our enjoyment of music, literature, and movies.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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