Friday, February 18, 2011

The 3 Rs: Reading, Riting, and Reciting

I've been doing a lot of the first two, but tonight I got to witness and judge, not do, the third. Our local arts and humanities council sponsored a regional Poetry Out Loud competition whose first, second, and third place winners go on to the Louisiana state competition.

First of all, kudos to the ten high school students who had the drive and courage to stand in front of an audience of strangers and five judges, two accuracy and three performance, and recite poetry from memory. The challenge was to bring the poetry to life and interpret it appropriately without acting it out. Most of the students did well with interpretation. Most were poised and delivered their two poems in a way that showed they knew what the words meant.

We're not talking about nursery rhymes here. The simplest poem was "Richard Cory," and even it isn't easy to recite. Too easy to fall into the singsong rhythm. I gave points to the young man who recited it for avoiding the obvious trap and giving the words a fresh tilt. Several contestants tried much harder fare:  "A Valediction:  Forbidding Mourning," "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," and "Kubla Khan." The first two are difficult to read silently, much less recite. I have a recording of Dylan Thomas reading "Do Not Go Gentle," and I don't think he did a good job. Picking that poem, all those poems, was gutsy.

The collective scores sent the strongest participants to the state level, and I wish the amazing young man and young women well. And I wish them luck. They'll be competing in a bigger pond with higher stakes.

The really hard part? Judging the recitations! That was my job as one of the performance judges. I exaggerate, of course, but the process was no walk in the park. Weak and average performances were easy enough to spot, but once a recitation rises above average, do you stop at rating it good, or go on to excellent? Can you -- do you dare -- go as far as outstanding? The decision process wore me out. And then four of the participants, the four highest scorers, asked for judges' impressions and advice on how to do better. Oh, my stars! How do you articulate something that in great part arises from subjectivity?

Finally, this competition is sponsored by the arts and humanities councils, local and national. Support the councils and support these activities! If we want to go on living in a democratic nation, education isn't only important, it's essential. The arts aren't expendable.