This past week I had the honor of hearing 20 local high school students perform poetry. I consider it my first Christmas gift. The event was part of the “Poetry Out Loud” National Recitation Contest, in which high school students across the nation compete to see who can recite—dramatically—the published poem of their choice. The winner of last week’s event will go to the state competition in Raleigh (thanks in part to a gasoline fund donated from the Haywood County Arts Council).
The contest was an absolute joy.
At the age of 17, I lacked the self-confidence to stand up in front of my class and recite anything, even in a lackluster manner. I remember forcing my way through Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Eve” during my sophomore year; the only reason I made it through was because my mom had very wisely made up a funny alternate ending.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
I tell him, “No.
Come on Joe.
It’s time to go.
The upshot of mom’s ending was that I was so amused/horrified by the thought of actually saying it aloud in class, I didn’t care one wit about standing in front of my peers. So I made it through. Not well, and certainly not dramatically. (Now, at the age of 40, I’d probably go in a cardboard sleigh with jingle bells and a bridle, but that’s two decades later.)
By comparison, the students from Pisgah HS, Tuscola HS, and Haywood Early College had the wherewithal to choose a poem that spoke to them, memorize it (no matter how difficult—many without the tumpty-tumpty rhyme scheme of Frost), and then inhabit that poem. I watched these kids abandon themselves to Poe, Dickens, Kerouac, and newer, equally profound prophets of verse. The performers faced their peers, their teachers, their parents, their competition, and they did so with pride. Together, we marveled at the creation of the Tyger burning bright. We grasped futilely at the sands of time slipping through our fingers. We stood in awe before the Vietnam War memorial. We celebrated and mourned and pondered and reaffirmed.
It was wonderful.
In the end, there was a winner. There was a runner-up and a strong third-place showing. Honestly, that didn’t matter to me. What I celebrate, and share with you today, are these kids. I applaud their self-confidence and their journey of self-discovery. They are now, all of them, ambassadors for the power of language. They know its force, its magic, its limitations. They know language can build walls or bridges. And they will carry that knowledge with them into their personal lives as well as their chosen professions. As a writer and a teacher and a lover of humanity, that thrills me more than any present under my tree.
In closing, I’ll leave you with a poem I found recently, written by Tomas Transtromer. It has become my winter blessing:
Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
I went to the snow-covered island.
The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions!
I come across the marks of roe-deer’s hooves in the snow.
Language but no words.