On Tuesday evening at the White House, President Obama hosted an event celebrating poetry, music and the spoken word. In the United States, there has been a resurgence of interest in poetry, especially poems that are recited out loud. For the past several years, thousands of high school students have been learning about poetry through memorization and performance in a program called Poetry Out Loud. The top performer from each state competes in a national championship. It took place recently in Washington DC.
Wiyaka wins competition
This is the Poetry Out Loud champion from the western state of South Dakota who recently competed in the 2009 national competition in Washington. Wiyaka is a Native American whose family name is His Horse is Thunder. Her father is an Indian chief and she is related to Sitting Bull, a famous chief in the 19th century who fought to protect his tribe's land. Native American tribes are known for storytelling, and Wiyaka says she is keeping that tradition alive, in her own way, by reciting poetry to audiences.
"I just want them to feel something when they hear it," she said.
Rebirth of art form
John Barr, head of the Poetry Foundation says much of the poetry written during the past 25 years was difficult to understand, and the public lost interest.
"Fine poems were being written but they were not the kind you would read in a newspaper," he said. "We're trying to get good poetry back in front of the general public."
The resurgence of recited poetry was influenced by two modern trends, beginning with poetry slams that started in the late 1980s. They are usually held in music clubs, where people can recite their own poems. The other influence is rap in hip-hop music.
More than reciting a poem
Students who compete in Poetry Out Loud do not recite their own poetry. They choose from a long list of poems.
Kareem Sayegh from the midwestern state of Illinois came in third in the national competition. His parents are from Egypt and he says he has been influenced by Egyptian poetry.
Kareem says he makes subtle gestures when he recites poems, since the contestants lose points if they are overly dramatic. "I just use my hand lightly and and then it becomes somewhat clearer," Kareem said.
Will Farley from Virginia recited a poem by one of his favorite poets, Langston Hughes, a well known African-American poet in the last century. When he was a university student in New York, Hughes wrote, "Theme for English B."
Will's interpretation of that poem helped him take the top prize. "Before Poetry Out Loud, poetry didn't mean much to me and Poetry Out Loud changed that," Farley said. "For me, poetry is alive, something I can connect with and feel, and express myself with."
Will won a $20,000 college scholarship, which he says will help him with his future ambitions. In the words of Langston Hughes, "Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly."