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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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20 Inspiring Quotes from Langston Hughes

Poet. Novelist. Playwright. Activist. There wasn’t much that Langston Hughes couldn't do. Born in Joplin, Missouri on February 1, 1902, Hughes—an innovator of the jazz poetry art form—eventually made his way to New York City, where he became one of the most recognized leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. But even amongst his peers, Hughes’s work stood out as unique.

In 1973’s Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, critic Donald B. Gibson wrote that Hughes “differed from most of his predecessors among black poets … in that he addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people. During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read.”

On the occasion of what would have been his 116th birthday (Hughes passed away in 1967, at the age of 65), here are 20 inspiring quotes from Langston Hughes.

1. ON HUMOR

“Humor is laughing at what you haven't got when you ought to have it ... what you wish in your secret heart were not funny, but it is, and you must laugh. Humor is your own unconscious therapy. Like a welcome summer rain, humor may suddenly cleanse and cool the earth, the air, and you.”

2. ON THE IMPORTANCE OF DREAMS

“A dream deferred is a dream denied.”

3. ON CENSORSHIP

“We Negro writers, just by being black, have been on the blacklist all our lives. Censorship for us begins at the color line.”

4. AND 5. ON FREEDOM

“In all my life, I have never been free. I have never been able to do anything with freedom, except in the field of my writing.”

“An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.”

6. ON THE PURPOSE OF ART

“Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people—the beauty within themselves.”

7. ON NOT TAKING “BUT” FOR AN ANSWER

“I will not take 'but' for an answer. Negroes have been looking at democracy's 'but' too long.”

8. AND 9. ON THE WRITING PROCESS

“I must never write when I do not want to write.”

“Writing is like traveling. It's wonderful to go somewhere, but you get tired of staying.”

10. ON DETERMINATION

“I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.”

11. ON THE PLACE OF POLITICS IN POETRY

“Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection.”

12. AND 13. ON DEMOCRACY

“Democracy will not come Today, this year Nor ever Through compromise and fear.”

“I swear to the Lord, I still can't see, why Democracy means, everybody but me.”

14. ON LIFE AND DEATH

“Life is for the living. Death is for the dead. Let life be like music. And death a note unsaid.”

15. ON THE DUTY OF BLACK ARTISTS

“To my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering 'I want to be white,' hidden in the aspirations of his people, to 'Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro—and beautiful!'”

16. ON LIVING IN THE PRESENT

“I tire so of hearing people say, Let things take their course. Tomorrow is another day. I do not need my freedom when I'm dead. I cannot live on tomorrow's bread.”

17. ON SEEKING STRENGTH FROM WITHIN

“When a man starts out to build a world, He starts first with himself.”

18. ON REVOLUTION

“Good morning, Revolution: You're the very best friend I ever had. We gonna pal around together from now on.”

19. ON THE NATURE OF JAZZ

“Jazz, to me, is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America: the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”

20. ON BEER

“Whiskey just naturally likes me but beer likes me better.”

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History
A Brief History of 'Auld Lang Syne'
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Every New Year’s Eve, after the champagne has been popped, the ball has dropped, and everyone is feeling very merry indeed, revelers queue up the same song they’ve been queuing up for decades. You know the one—it makes you cry, even though you don’t understand it and know almost none of the words.

A handful of options pop up when you search for the meaning of “auld lang syne”: "times/days gone by," “old time’s sake,” “long long times/ago,” and even “once upon a time” among them. The most common consensus is something like “for old time’s sake,” which is about as direct an interpretation as you can get, as the word-for-word translation is “old long since.” The line about “for auld lang syne” is essentially, “for (the sake of) old times.” (For the record, it never says the totally nonsensical “for the sake of auld lang syne.”) Beyond the words themselves, there’s even less agreement about exactly how the tune came to be a New Year’s Eve tradition.

The song originated as a poem, but it probably wasn’t written by Robert Burns as is commonly believed—at least not entirely. The poet was simply the first person to write down an old Scottish folk song (it bears more than a passing resemblance to “Old Long Syne,” a ballad that was printed by James Watson in 1711). Burns himself said, “I took it down from an old man,” and whether it was transcribed or co-authored, it’s safe to say that the “Auld Lang Syne” we know today is some combination of an old poem and Burns’s creative input.

Illustration to Robert Burns' poem Auld Lang Syne by J.M. Wright and Edward Scriven
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In any case, Burns sent a copy of the poem to a friend in 1788 and wrote: "There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians!" Later he contributed it to the Scots Musical Museum.

Five years later, Burns wrote to James Johnson, who was assembling a book of old Scottish songs: "The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man."

It’s unclear whether Johnson linked Burns to the song in his credits, but by the time the book was published in 1796, the poet was dead. He’d never know that those words would eventually help secure his own cultural immortality.

The words aren’t the only element that evolved over the years; it’s believed that the original tune is different than the one we drunkenly hum along to today. Originally, the song had a more traditional folk sound, one that can be heard in (of all things) 2008’s Sex and the City movie. This version is still performed today, but with much less frequency than the New Year standard. The melody we all know was used at the suggestion of music publisher George Thompson.

How then, did a Scottish folk song with a murky provenance and nothing at all to do with New Year’s Eve become associated with the holiday? It’s largely thanks to bandleader Guy Lombardo. In 1929, Lombardo and his band played “Auld Lang Syne” as transitional music while performing at New York City's Roosevelt Hotel during a New Year’s Eve broadcast. It was played just after midnight, and heard over radio and television airwaves, inadvertently spawning a global tradition.  

Today, “Auld Lang Syne” is one of the most recognizable songs around the world, where it's played at funerals, celebrations, and as a warning that closing time is approaching at stores throughout Japan.

To impress your date this New Year’s Eve, learn the the correct words here—and don’t worry too much about the meaning. As Sally Albright says in When Harry Met Sally...: “Anyway, it’s about old friends.”

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