CLOSE
IStock
IStock

Competition Reviving the Art of Reciting Poetry

IStock
IStock

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss
arrow
literature
15 Intriguing Facts About George Eliot
Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss
Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss

Born in England in 1819, novelist and poet George Eliot is best remembered for writing classic books like Middlemarch and Silas Marner. Despite the time period she wrote in, the author—whose real name was Mary Anne (or Marian) Evans—was no stuffy Victorian. She had a famously scandalous love life and, among other linguistic accomplishments, is responsible for the term pop music. Here are 15 things you might not know about the beloved British writer.

1. SHE WAS BORN ON THE ESTATE WHERE HER FATHER WORKED.

Eliot was born on the grounds of Arbury Hall and Estate, a sprawling mansion in Warwickshire, England with hundreds of acres of surrounding gardens and farmland. Her father, Robert Evans, worked for the estate's owners, the Newdigate family, as a manager and agent. His job entailed collecting rents from tenant farmers and overseeing the property's coal mine.

2. HER RURAL UPBRINGING INSPIRED HER LATER NOVELS.

Arbury Hall
Arbury Hall
Elliott Brown, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Eliot was just an infant when her family moved from Arbury Hall to a home in a nearby town. But Arbury and the Warwickshire countryside left their mark on her. In Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), Eliot's collection of three short stories, she wrote about the area and drew inspiration from real places and people. And some of her stories mirrored reality pretty closely. For instance, she turned Arbury Hall into Cheverel Manor, and Sir Roger Newdigate, Arbury's owner, into Sir Christopher Cheverel.

3. SHE EDITED A JOURNAL FOR PROGRESSIVE THINKERS.

In the early 1850s, Eliot wrote for The Westminster Review, a London-based periodical founded by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, contributing essays and reviews using the name Marian Evans. She soon became the de facto editor of the progressive journal, though her role was anonymous. Years later, other writers reviewed Eliot's own pseudonymous works in the journal she once edited.

4. SHE WORKED AS A TRANSLATOR.

Throughout her life, Eliot put her language skills to work translating foreign works into English. She translated books like David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus), a highly controversial German treatise that argued that Jesus Christ was a real person, but not divine. (Upon reading her translation, one English nobleman called it "the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.") Eliot also translated The Essence of Christianity by German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and the Latin Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, incorporating facets of these philosophical and religious ideas into her own writing.

5. SHE WASN'T A FAN OF MOST WOMEN WRITERS OF HER DAY.

Eliot was by no means a misogynist, but she did have some harsh words for fellow women writers. In an anonymous essay titled "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," Eliot lamented the frivolous characters and unrealistic plots that she argued were nearly ubiquitous features of novels written by women at the time. Published in The Westminster Review in 1856, Eliot's essay asserted that these books, full of cliches and improbable romantic endings, made educated women look foolish. She also criticized the writing style of other women of her time, saying they mistook "vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality." However, she did allow that not every book written by a woman fell into this trap, praising writers like Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë) and Elizabeth Gaskell.

6. SHE WAS NOT CONSIDERED CONVENTIONALLY ATTRACTIVE …

George Eliot, circa 1868.
George Eliot, circa 1868.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Eliot's appearance was a source of avid discussion during her lifetime, and her looks continue to fascinate readers today. Eliot herself joked about her ugliness in letters to friends, and the novelist Henry James once described her in a letter to his father as "magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous." He went on to say that the "horse-faced" writer had a "vast pendulous nose," a low forehead, and bad teeth, among other physical flaws.

7. … BUT MEN LOVED HER.

Despite her plain appearance, men were drawn to Eliot. In the same letter where he called her "deliciously hideous," James explained his counterintuitive attraction towards her like this: "Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her."

After various dalliances and a marriage proposal that she turned down, she spent more than two decades with the philosopher and critic George Lewes. But Lewes was already married, and as a result, many in Eliot's social circle (including her brother) shunned her. Though Lewes couldn't obtain an official divorce from his estranged wife, he and Eliot lived together as partners until his death in 1878, and she referred to herself as Mrs. Marian Lewes.

8. HER PEN NAME PAID HOMAGE TO HER LOVER.

In 1856, both to avoid the sexism of the publishing industry and distance her literary work from her scandalous romantic situation, she adopted the pen name George Eliot, a male nom de plume that paid homage to Lewes. In addition to adopting his first name, some historians have also suggested that "Eliot" derives from "To L(ewes), I owe it."

9. SHE MARRIED A MAN TWO DECADES HER JUNIOR …

After Lewes's death, Eliot channeled her grief by editing his writing and spending time with her lawyer and accountant, John Cross. Although Eliot was 60 and Cross was just 40, the two friends fell in love and married at London's St. George's Church in the spring of 1880.

10. … BUT THEIR HONEYMOON TOOK A DARK TURN.

After their wedding, the pair traveled to Venice, Italy for their honeymoon. Although Cross wrote a letter to his sister indicating that he was having a delightful time, Eliot knew something was wrong. Her new husband was depressed, agitated, and losing weight. She called a doctor to their hotel room and was speaking with him when Cross jumped off the balcony into the Grand Canal.

Cross was rescued by a hotel worker and the personal gondolier the couple had hired to take them around the waterways. The newlyweds eventually continued on their trip, and they remained married until Eliot's death later that year. Historians continue to speculate about the reason for his jump, and whether it was a suicide attempt—Cross may have had a personal and family history of mental illness—or some kind of heat-induced delirium. The mysterious incident was recently turned into a novel.

11. SHE INVENTED THE TERM POP

You probably don't associate George Eliot with Lady Gaga, but the Oxford English Dictionary credits the Victorian novelist with coining the term pop to refer to popular music. In November 1862, Eliot wrote in a birthday letter to a friend, "We have been to a Monday Pop. this week to hear Beethoven's Septet, and an amazing thing of Bach's played by the amazing Joachim. But there is too much 'Pop.' for the thorough enjoyment of the chamber music they give."

12. … AND A NEW MEANING OF THE WORD BROWSER.

George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK
George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK

Diamond Geezer, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Eliot coined a number of other now-common terms in her writing. For instance, she was the first to use the word browser in the modern sense of someone who is casually looking around (like a browser in a bookstore). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 16th century, the word browser meant “a person who cuts the leaves and twigs of trees to use as food for animals in winter." Later, it came to mean an animal that searched for leaves and twigs to eat. Eliot's historical novel Romola marked the first recorded time the word was used to mean a person generally surveying something. In it, she describes several friends of Florentine politician Bartolomeo Scala as "amiable browsers in the Medicean park."

13. SHE WAS ALSO A POET.

Although Eliot was most famous for her novels, she also produced two volumes of poetry. Her first published piece of writing was a poem called "Knowing That Shortly I Must Put Off This Tabernacle." Published in The Christian Observer in 1840, the poem refers to the Bible and imagines a person who is about to die saying goodbye to Earth. In a later poem, "O May I Join the Choir Invisible," Eliot argues that improving the world during one's lifetime is the only way to achieve permanence.

14. VIRGINIA WOOLF ADMIRED HER WRITING.

Author Virginia Woolf praised Middlemarch's mature prose, referring to it as "the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." And modern readers seem to agree. In 2015, a BBC poll of 82 book critics from around the world named Middlemarch the greatest British novel of all time. Several authors, including Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, have also listed the book as one of the greatest English novels ever written.

15. HER FORMER HOME IS NOW A STEAKHOUSE.

Griff House, where Eliot lived as an infant until her early twenties, still exists, but it's now home to a steakhouse and hotel. Called the Griff House Beefeater & Nuneaton Premier Travel Inn, the spot also features a pond, gardens, and a play area for kids.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
literature
The Stories Behind 15 Poems We All Learned in School
iStock
iStock

Poetry can seem impenetrable for many readers, but the best examples usually have a simple message behind all the flowery language and symbolism. Whether they're tragic or funny, romantic or frightening, the timeless ones are always anchored in the real world—you might just have to give them a careful read to find the meaning.

Part of the reason why certain poems can endure for centuries is because the poets themselves are inspired by the same types of issues we endure every day: love, loss, fear, rage. The best of these works have a backstory that's just as interesting as the verses themselves; here's the story behind 15 poems we all learned in school.

1. "INVICTUS" // W.E. HENLEY

Perhaps no other poet on this list put their struggles down on paper as succinctly as W.E. Henley did with "the age of Invictus." At 12, Henley was diagnosed with arthritic tuberculosis, which eventually required the amputation of one leg during his late teens, and the possibility of losing the other. Refusing this fate, when Henley was in his mid-twenties, he instead turned to Dr. Joseph Lister, who performed an alternative surgery that saved the leg.

It was during the years spent in the hospital that Henley wrote "Invictus," a stark proclamation of his resistance against life's trials and tragedies. "Out of the night that covers me," it starts, "Black as the pit from pole to pole/I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul." The poem famously ends with "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul."

It's a poem that endures across all races and cultures. It was an inspiration to Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment and has been referenced in countless movies, television shows, and books ever since its publication in 1888.

2. "THE RED WHEELBARROW" // WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

A picture of a red wheelbarrow
iStock

It was originally published without a title—simply known by the number XXII—but "The Red Wheelbarrow" has grown into one of the most memorable short poems of the 20th century. It sprung from the mind of William Carlos Williams, whose day job was as a doctor in northern New Jersey. It's only 16 words, but it paints an unforgettable picture:

"so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens."

Williams had said that the imagery was inspired by a patient of his that he had grown close to while making a house call. "In his backyard," Williams said of the man, "I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing."

It took some research and census records, but William Logan, an English professor at the University of Florida, finally discovered in 2015 that the man was Thaddeus Lloyd Marshall Sr. of Rutherford, New Jersey.

3. "IF—" // RUDYARD KIPLING

Rudyard Kipling portrait
Elliott & Fry, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There may be no more fitting national mantra for the British people than Rudyard Kipling's "If—." The poem, which champions stoicism, is routinely one of the UK's favorites in polls, with lines like "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same" and "If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone" serving as a rallying cry for the stiff-upper-lip crowd.

For everything that Kipling put on the page, the story behind the poem is just as notable. Kipling was inspired by the actions of Leander Starr Jameson, a politician and adventurer responsible for leading the infamous Jameson Raid, a failed attempt over the 1895-96 New Year holiday to incite an uprising among the British "Uitlanders" in South Africa against the Boers, or the descendants of early, chiefly Dutch, settlers.

The raid was a catastrophe, and Jameson and his surviving men were extradited back to England for trial as the government condemned the attempt. He was sentenced to 15 months (though he was released early), but his actions had gained the respect of the people of England—Jameson was punished, but it was felt that he was betrayed by his own government, including Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who was widely suspected of having supported the raid during the planning but denounced it when it failed.

This theme can be read in Kipling’s words "If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you" and "If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,/Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,/Or being hated, don't give way to hating."

4. "JABBERWOCKY" // LEWIS CARROLL

Statue of Alice in Wonderland
iStock

Long before Lewis Carroll introduced the nonsensical "Jabberwocky" in 1871's Through the Looking-Glass, he wrote a rough version of the poem in 1855 under the title "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry." It appeared in the periodical he created to amuse his friends and family called Mischmasch.

The poem featured the stanza: "Twas bryllyg, and the slythy toves/Did gyre and gymble in the wabe/All mimsy were the borogoves;/And the mome raths outgrabe," which would remain (though slightly tweaked) in Looking-Glass years later as both the first and final stanzas.

When he wrote Looking-Glass, Carroll returned to the basic foundation of the poem, but he added the five middle stanzas that introduced the Jabberwock. The inspiration behind the monster itself has been said to be anything from Beowulf to a local folk monster called the Sockburn Worm from the village of Croft-on-Tees, where Carroll wrote.

So where did Carroll get the name Jabberwock from? The author himself later explained it by saying "The Anglo-Saxon word 'wocer' or 'wocor' signifies 'offspring' or 'fruit'. Taking 'jabber' in its ordinary acceptation of 'excited and voluble discussion,' this would give the meaning of ‘the result of much excited discussion.'"

If all that still sounds like nonsense to you—well, that's probably how he wanted it.

5. "WE REAL COOL" // GWENDOLYN BROOKS

A picture of a pool table
iStock

Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and became "Poet Laureate" in the 1985–86 term (back when the position was properly called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress). Despite all the accolades, Brooks might be best known to casual readers for the poem "We Real Cool," a brief, four-verse piece that depicts the lives of young people playing pool, drinking gin, and "singing sin."

Brooks was inspired to write the poem when she was walking through her neighborhood and noticed seven young boys at the local pool hall during school hours. As she said during a live reading of the poem, she wasn't so much concerned with why they weren't in school, she was more curious with "how they feel about themselves."

Apparently the answer is "real cool."

6. "THE RAVEN" // EDGAR ALLAN POE

The front of Edgar Allan Poe house
iStock

A lot of real-life inspiration went into Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." First, there was the fact that his wife was deathly ill with tuberculosis during the time of writing and publication. Then, the raven itself was partly inspired by one owned by Charles Dickens, who had also been inspired to include it in his own book, Barnaby Rudge. (Rudge's raven even coaxes a character to exclaim "What was that? Him tapping at the door?" Similar to Poe's "rapping at my chamber door" raven.)

But while so many great works have backstories that are more legend than fact, Poe detailed his writing process of "The Raven" in the essay "The Philosophy of Composition." Here he revealed in meticulous detail how he came up with the tone, rhythm, and form of the poem, even going as far as to claim he decided on the refrain of "nevermore" because "the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant."

7. "THE ROAD NOT TAKEN" // ROBERT FROST

Poet Robert Frost posing for a photo
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For "The Road Not Taken," poet Robert Frost found inspiration in his friend, English literary critic Edward Thomas. It was originally conceived as sort of an inside joke at Thomas's expense, a callback to the fact that Thomas would always regret whatever path the two of them would take when out walking together.

It's a very human instinct to regret or overthink our choices and wonder—often in vain—what the alternative would be like. While many people tend to think the poem is about the triumph of individuality, some argue that it's really about regret and how we either celebrate our successes or blame our misfortunes on our seemingly arbitrary choices.

When you read it like that, saying "And that has made all the difference" smacks of a bit more irony than it did back when you first read it in high school.

8. "THE NEW COLOSSUS" // EMMA LAZARUS

An image of the Statue of Liberty
iStock

When Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883, it was only meant to be part of an auction to raise money for the foundation for the Statue of Liberty. It sold for $1500—not bad for a 105-word sonnet written in two days—but though it was printed in some limited-release pamphlets by the fundraising group, the poem wasn't read at the dedication of the statue in 1886.

Unfortunately, Lazarus never got to see how far and wide her words would resonate—when she died in 1887, her New York Times obituary didn't even mention the poem. It was only well after the statue had been completed that "The New Colossus" was added to its base, thanks to the urging of Lazarus's friend and admirer Georgina Schuyler. Then, slowly, "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" entered the public lexicon and became ingrained as part of America's national identity.

9. "O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!" // WALT WHITMAN

A photograph of Walt Whitman
iStock

Walt Whitman witnessed the Civil War up close. Though he was already in his forties during the fighting, he volunteered at hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area—sometimes he would bring food and supplies to the soldiers, other times he just kept them company.

Seeing the schism the war had caused, Whitman began to take a genuine interest in, and found a deep respect for, the burden President Abraham Lincoln was dealing with. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Whitman channeled his grief into a number of poems, the most famous being "O Captain! My Captain!"

The poem was a metaphor for what the country had just been through—America itself as the ship that had just weathered a great storm, and Lincoln as the fallen captain, whose "lips are pale and still."

10. "SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY" // LORD BYRON

A row of books by Lord Byron
iStock

The story behind the lyrical poem "She Walks in Beauty" is as lovely as the verse Lord Byron weaved. In June 1814, Byron attended a London party where he first saw Anne Wilmot, his cousin's wife. She was wearing a striking black mourning dress that was adorned in spangles, and her beauty inspired Byron's poem, most famously its first four lines:

“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.”

Some have interpreted the "cloudless climes and starry skies" as a description of the famous dress that drew Byron's attention to Mrs. Wilmot.

11. "THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS" // LANGSTON HUGHES

Poet Langston Hughes

He was just 19 when he published this poem, but Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is one of his most well-known works. The idea came to him while he was traveling by train to Mexico City to visit his father—specifically, as he was crossing the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Missouri.

In the poem, the narrator speaks of rivers—how they're ancient, older than humans themselves. He also says, despite this, he knows rivers. "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." He's bathed in the Euphrates, built a hut on the Congo, looked upon the Nile, and heard the singing of the Mississippi. These rivers have important links to human history, to new societies, to African Americans, and to slavery. And all it took was a simple train ride to find the ties that bind them all together.

12. "TULIPS" // SYLVIA PLATH

A field of red and white tulips
iStock

"Tulips" has a simple enough backstory—it was inspired by a bouquet of flowers Sylvia Plath received while in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy. But Plath turned the event into one of her most renowned poems, beginning with the line "The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here."

Sprinkled throughout are visuals of the red tulips and the white, sanitary hospital, staffed with a never-ending army of nurses.

"The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds."

So much of Plath's life and work revolved around tragedy, and "Tulips" is one of the most discussed windows into her personality.

13. "OZYMANDIAS" // PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

A crumbling statue
iStock

Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley traveled in an elite literary circle that included the likes of Lord Byron and John Keats. So what would a group of young intellectual writers do to stimulate their interest and spark their creativity? Well, they'd compete, of course.

One of Shelley's most famous poems, "Ozymandias," was likely born out of a competition between himself and writer Horace Smith (very similar to the 1816 competition between Shelley, his soon-to-be wife Mary Shelley, Byron, and physician John Polidori over who could write the best horror story—Mary's Frankenstein was the winner there). The goal was to write dueling poems on the same concept—the description of a statue of Ramses II (also known as Ozymandias) from the works of Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. Most important was the statue's inscription: "I am Osymandias, king of kings; if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let him excel me in any of my works."

Shelley described Siculus's same statue but in decay, a boastful monument now left to rot. This would serve as a warning that no matter how powerful one may think themselves to be, we're all helpless to the scourge of time. For a political writer such as Shelley, the imagery was too perfect.

Shelley's version of "Ozymandias" appeared in The Examiner in 1818 almost a month before Smith's, which, by the rules of these arbitrary competitions, likely led to Shelley being victorious.

14. "DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT" // DYLAN THOMAS

Poet Dylan Thomas
Gabriel Hackett, Getty Images

In one of the most cherished poems about mortality, Dylan Thomas urged his dying father to fight back against the inevitability of death and immortalized the refrain "Do not go gentle into that good night." Published in 1951, the poem focuses on a son urging his father to be defiant ("Rage, rage against the dying of the light") and arguing that while all men eventually die, they don't have to do so resignedly. The poem was released shortly before Thomas's own death in 1953 at the age of 39 and is still studied in schools and referenced in popular culture.

15. "A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS" // DISPUTED

Santa Claus leaving presents
iStock

Everyone knows the poem—"'Twas the night before Christmas" and all that—but scholars can't quite agree on the author. Some say it was a poet and professor named Clement Clarke Moore, who allegedly wrote the piece for his kids before his housekeeper sent it in to New York's Troy Sentinel for publication in 1823 without his knowledge.

On the other side is Henry Livingston, Jr., whose family said they were reciting this poem 15 years before it was published in the Sentinel. Unfortunately, any proof they had was gone when their home—which allegedly contained handwritten versions of the poem that predate Moore's—burned down.

For now, it's Moore who officially gets credit for the cherished poem, but it's not without a bit of holiday controversy.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios