In the silence, she moved across the hardwood floor, traveled the empty stage with sure steps, and slipped into the spotlight. She stood proudly behind the microphone. With rehearsed movement, she adjusted it to the right height for her 5’ frame, gazed out across the audience, and took a deep breath, pulling her spine straight on the exhale.
I took the same breath and exhaled with her, rocking forward a little in my seat, sending her my energy from the darkness of the auditorium.
“My name is Julia and I’ll be reciting “Beautiful Wreckage” by W.D. Ehrhart.”
My pulse quickening, I felt her wrap the poem around her petite body and transport herself to Vietnam. Suddenly, her grandfather, a veteran of the Vietnam War marched on stage in uniform. Her mother who memorized all of his stories also appeared. The American soldiers mentioned by Ehrhart emerged then from the wings and came to stand beside her, versions of their wounded selves, but somehow mended. Her words invoked them all. The audience saw them too.
Then they melted away, ghostlike, as she recited the last lines of the poem.
What if none of it happened the way I said it? / Would it all be a lie? / Would the wreckage be suddenly beautiful?
She was there alone again. Her back was still tall and she stood luminous in that single spotlight.
As a literature, writing, and acting teacher, there are many occasions when my three passions merge. The best of these moments come when my students choose, memorize, and recite great poems. Julia was a student in my Honors British Literature class when I introduced Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation contest that can unleash the magic detailed in the opening scenario. She was not my typical competitor, yet she had exactly what she needed to become just that—desire, fearlessness, and drive.
Coaching Poetry Out Loud provides me with as much joy as the contest provides for my students. I begin with explaining the process of choosing the right poem. This step is crucial to any poetry recitation. The speaker must be able to embody the poem. It has to sound as if the student is speaking from their heart, every word internalized. A deep connection to the ideas must be there.
I try to use my knowledge of their interests to help my students with selections. This is why knowing them on a personal level is paramount to the process. I use journaling as a way to help them name exactly what moves them; I find it rare that they’ve ever done this kind of self-reflection before. In helping Julia choose her poem, we spoke about what makes her happy, brings her to tears, fuels her anger, or challenges her intellect. In the end, after reading many poems, she embraced “Beautiful Wreckage” because of her heritage and family history, but also because she felt the poem spoke to her on a personal level.
After choosing a poem that holds light for them, a student completes a line-by-line analysis, annotating the poem with highlighters, stars, circles, and comments. Words are researched and studied for connotations, places are located on maps and in photos, and multiple themes are discussed. Then come symbols, personifications, and metaphor. Until the student fully understands every word of the poem, rehearsal and memorization cannot begin. The act of decoding and trying to put one’s self in the mind of the poet in order to own the poem makes for compelling work.
Julia showed up in my classroom over her lunch break. Every day. She pronounced each word, realizing that because poets use so few words, each one carries its own weight and deserves her full attention. She recited lines aloud in multiple ways, practiced intonations, used volume shifts, drawing out some words, clipping others in a staccato style. She learned that sometimes the power of a poem is in its blank space. She became Aladdin, riding on pauses like floating carpets in order to give the words around them even more power. The pauses were where she could practice “Illusion of the First Time,” an acting technique that challenges actors to make it sound as if they are coming up with the words in the moment. Although she never studied acting, she mastered this technique and learned how to use it effectively.
Eventually, it was time to get on her feet and move to the center of my classroom. She tried to hide behind the podium, but there’s never a podium on stage at the competition, so she reluctantly gave up that idea. As she began reciting the poem, she started pacing and shifting her weight from foot to foot; nervous energy took over. Challenging her to be still and move the energy to her voice was difficult. Planting her feet became such an impossible task that we joked about needing duct tape to keep her in place.
Soon, her immersion in the poem and the need to conjure its emotions were so consuming that the stillness came naturally. So did her confidence. She was able to imagine the scenes she described in the poem and put herself in the place of the speaker who had witnessed atrocities. This work was exhausting and she could only perform the poem a few times before she needed to rest. I watched her grow from an uncertain observer with the desire to accomplish the performance to a brave young woman who could not bear to keep this poem inside of her much longer. As a teacher, there is no happier moment than to watch a student morph this way. It was worth working over my lunch breaks for three months; in fact, I would give up every remaining lunch break in my career for the type of exultation I experience when my students prepare and deliver poems they love.
In addition to my happiness, there is the matter of what Poetry Out Loud does for the rest of the student body. Each year, I have about 40-50 students who choose to compete on the school level. The day of the competition on our stage, I invite all of my colleagues, in every discipline, to bring their classes to watch the event. The first year, they weren’t sure if it was a legitimate reason to give up class time, or if their students would be quiet and respectful enough at the event. In some grassroots PR efforts, I prompted the right students to ask other teachers to bring them because they shouldn’t miss this event. I ensured their cooperation by explaining that their peers needed them to witness their performances.
In time, our small auditorium became packed for each competition. Students sit, edge-of-seat, pin-drop silent, clinging to words as their classmates don their cloaks. The energy now surges during the entire week leading to the event and more students embrace it with the fervor of an athletic competition. They wait eagerly for each reciter and chant their name before the poem begins. At the end of recitations, there’s a sometimes audible exhalation, a hushed Wow or even Damn and there’s always a loud and sincere round of applause. Poetry holds this brand of power. No one can doubt it after they perform or observe others speak memorized poems. The phrase “knowing something by heart” was never one I really thought about until I witnessed teaching poems as scripts and the way it changes everything. The “heart” must be activated, and isn’t that the only way to truly know anything?
Reciting poetry is not acting in the traditional sense, but it’s lending one’s voice and body to a poet and allowing the words to resonate from one who connects deeply to a poem. I’ve watched as a student recited “One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII” by Pablo Neruda through tears to honor her fierce Italian mother who had raised her alone. One of my shyest students found her voice in Ada Limón’s “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” smiling through victorious words as she spoke louder than I had ever heard her. It is nothing short of miraculous to hear a strong high school football player put himself at the edge of the ocean with John Keats and speak with the desperation of someone who knows he will die “Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain.” Some of my most poignant teacher memories happened while watching my students disappear under magic cloaks and emerge transformed with bits of glitter in their hair and moonlight in their eyes.
Julia graduates next semester with a communications degree. She claims that learning to recite poetry helped her find her voice and her future.
I don’t doubt that this is true.
It is also true and wondrous that the words “Beautiful Wreckage,” in my handwriting, are tattooed on her right shoulder, just where the cloak once rested.
Photo by Pedro Fernandes, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Dana Kinsey.
Winter Stars: Three 10-Minute Plays includes one tragedy, one noir fantasy, and one comedy: Winter Stars; To the Shadows We Return, and Auras in Suburbia.
” I’d love to see these on stage, especially for youth theater, and I look forward to more from this author.”
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What a lovely essay. And how wonderful that a poem became such a catalyst. To see that kind of transformation – all because of words – has to be tremendously rewarding.
Sandra Heska King says
“choosing a poem that holds light for them.” They must be able to embody it on a much deeper way than memorizing an assigned poem.
Oftentimes, I just start memorizing a poem (after handwriting it) and find that it comes alive bit by bit. I like how you have the students do deep analysis before tackling the memorization itself–although by then it may have unwittingly taken hold of them.
Laurie Klein says