Poetry Out Loud Makes Beautiful Noise

Kristen Dupard, a high school senior from Mississippi, won the 2012 Poetry Out Loud national recitation contest on Tuesday. It was a long road for Kristen, who had to advance from her classroom to a school-wide competition, then on through regional/state competitions, just to make the finals in Washington, D.C. In the end, she beat out eight other finalists, 52 state (and territory) champions, and more than 365,000 students nationwide to take the $20,000 prize.

The long odds Dupard beat are great news for Poetry Out Loud, an annual competition that has grown considerably since its founding in 2006. The event is a joint effort by the National Endowment for the Arts (along with its state-level equivalents) and the Poetry Foundation to encourage students to learn about poetry by memorizing and reciting it. The approach gets students excited, and probably gets them a little closer to poetry's power than some quiet reading in a textbook would. It also picks up on the growing popularity of slam poetry nationwide.

Kristen and her fellow competitors selected their poems from Poetry Out Loud's anthology. They were then judged on some no-nonsense criteria, including: Dramatic Appropriateness Students are advised to "rely on a powerful internalization of the poem rather than distracting dramatic gestures" -- in other words, to be more narrator than actor. And they shouldn't flail their arms. Which is probably what I would have done in high school.

Voice and Articulation Aside from generally sounding awesome, students have to consider how much of a pause a poem's line breaks deserve, and if a poem rhymes, how to keep it from sounding sing-songy.

Physical Presence Includes body language, poise, and eye contact (more things I was not good at in high school).

Accuracy and Level of Difficulty A poem's difficulty is based on the complexity of its ideas, diction and syntax, and on its length. If you trip up or forget a word, you get dinged. It's like falling on a triple salchow.

Judges also consider two broader categories: Evidence of Understanding and Overall Performance.

Dupard showed off her range in the finals, reciting three poems: Paul Laurence Dunbar's melodious and formal "Invitation to Love," Cornelius Eady's bluesy "I'm a Fool to Love You," and her favorite, Poet Laureate Philip Levine's "What Work Is."

The video of Kristen's wining performance isn't up yet, but YouTube does have a clip of her performing last year. She recited "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday" by Robert Hayden. And she owned it.

Congratulations as well to Claude Mumbere of Burlington, Vt., who came in second and received a $10,000 award, and MarKaye Hassan of Logan, Utah, who came in third and earned a $5,000 prize (not too shabby, Utah). All of the finalists' high schools will receive a $500 stipend to buy poetry books, and all the participating high schools have succeeded in piquing their students' interest in poetry. That, too, is something to celebrate. And can we get this on TV? The spelling bee is on TV, for God's sake. Find out how your school can get involved at Poetry Out Loud's website here.