Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

Poetry Out Loud


Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest for American high school students, a joint project of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, now in its sixth year. In 2009-2010, close to 325,000 students took part. According to the website’s About page,

Recitation and performance are exciting current trends in poetry. There has been a resurgence of poetry as an oral art form, as seen in the slam poetry movement and the immense popularity of hip-hop music. Poetry Out Loud builds on that momentum by inviting the dynamic aspects of slam poetry, spoken word, and theater into the English class.

The national contest is run in a federated fashion, with each state’s arts agency solely responsible for the contest in that state, although “teachers, students, and poetry lovers everywhere can use this website and its accompanying educational materials to organize their own recitation contests.” In my state, Pennsylvania, the competition is carried live on PCN, our state equivalent of C-SPAN, and last March I was able to watch it online after a friend who has TV alerted me that it was on. I realize this might not be everyone’s idea of gripping television — it doesn’t have quite the glitz and glamour of “American Idol” — but I found it quite exciting.

You can do a video search of “Poetry Out Loud” to see finalists from around the country; New Jersey and California seem to be the best represented on YouTube. Here’s the Rhode Island state winner from 2010, Amber Rose Johnson, with a joyful performance of Nikki Giovanni’s “Walking Down Park“:

Last year, the first deaf student to enter, Tiffany Hill, won the Oregon state contest. Check out the Facebook video of her signing “Inside Out” by Diane Wakoski. This is fascinating because of the way it challenges conventional notions of what poetry recitation can be. And it suggests parallels with dance interpretations of poetry, as well.

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Author: Dave Bonta

I write poems, blog, take photos, and edit a poetry video site called Moving Poems.

3 thoughts on “Poetry Out Loud

  1. I love this video of people talking about Poetry Out Loud – their enthusiasm is infectious:

    I guess one point of note about this from a Voice Alpha perspective is that it is not about reading poetry for an audience — all the contestants seem to memorize their work. Memorization is a whole huge aspect of things we need to find someone to guest-blog about!

    • A very heart-warming video indeed!

      I know I know some memorization freaks; I just can’t remember who they are. (You see why I’m not a big fan of memorization?) I am actually much more open to the idea of memorizing other people’s work than to memorizing my own, as the slammers advocate. I would just worry about getting too stuck in a groove if I did that.

  2. Jill and I were judges at the local level for 2010, and it was fascinating. We really saw some kids succumb to the stereotypes of melodrama, hand gestures and over-emphasis of rhythm (like the metronome). The most powerful recitations were those that trusted the power of the words and images and let the speaker/performer be the vehicle only — not the star.

    In addition, they provided the judges with a CD proclaiming the benefits of studying poetry, reading poetry out loud and memorizing poetry. And it included celebrities reading famous poems. I still have it in the car. My favorite is Anthony Hopkins reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

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