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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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This Interactive Periodic Table Features a Haiku for Each Element
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Haikus, Japanese poems that follow a five syllable/seven syllable/five syllable line structure, traditionally highlight pieces of the natural world. That makes the periodic table of elements a perfect fit for this tricky form of verse.

Writing in Science, fantasy/sci-fi author Mary Soon Lee composed 119 haikus, one for each chemical element plus one for the yet-to-be-synthesized element 119. Just scroll over each element in the interactive periodic table to see a new verse.

Some poems are straight-forward summaries of their everyday applications. The haiku for lithium, for example, reads:

Lighter than water,
empower my phone, my car.
Banish depression.

Others, like this poem for aluminum, are a little more tongue-in-cheek:

Spent Kindergarten
endless writing your name.
One i or two i's?

Whether you're looking for an out-of-the-box way to memorize the elements or are just in the mood for some creative poetry, Lee's haiku table makes for a fun read. Here are some samples of her work for your reading pleasure:


Let those enduring
your enemas remember
fireworks' green splendor.


Licked by the women
painting luminous watches.
How much time stolen?


underneath the dunce's cap.
Densest in the class.


Show-stealing diva,
throw yourself at anyone,
decked out in diamonds.

[h/t Science]

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Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
New Poetry by Sylvia Plath Discovered in Her Archives
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Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana

Several previously unknown poems by Sylvia Plath have been discovered hidden in the back of one of her notebooks, according to The Guardian. Researchers working on a new book on the poet came upon a piece of carbon paper that contained two of Plath’s poems, and potentially a third, although that one has not been verified.

Plath’s papers are held at the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington, where the notebook was found. On the same carbon paper as the newly discovered poems, Plath had also typed the table of contents for a poetry collection by her husband, Ted Hughes. Plath had typed up two published poems, “The Shrike” and “Natural History,” as well as the two unpublished ones.

Using Photoshop, Plath scholar Peter K. Steinberg deciphered “To a Refractory Santa Claus,” a poem about yearning for the fair weather of Spain during a cold English winter. (Plath and Hughes honeymooned on the eastern coast of Spain.) “Although they said the poem was inferior to Plath’s later work, the academics described the imagery in the poem as ‘spectacular’,” according to The Guardian. The second poem, “Megrims,” is a speech by a paranoid patient directed to a doctor. The third poem is likely Plath’s, but has not yet been deciphered.

Steinberg’s book with fellow Plath researcher Gail Crowther, These Ghostly Archives, reveals these and other new discoveries about the poet, who died in 1963. It comes out in October.

[h/t The Guardian]


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