Renewing the reasons to rhyme

Ideas: Poetry Bees

March 13, 2005|By Charles Storch | Charles Storch,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

From geography bees to science competitions, young people across the country face off in all sorts of academic contests. The nation's top spellers have been featured on ESPN and in a hit movie.

So why not a "poetry bee"?

The Chicago-based Poetry Foundation is working with the National Endowment for the Arts on pilot programs in high schools there and in the Washington, D.C., area that could lead to a national student poetry recitation contest.

Students in a West Side Chicago high school have begun organizing the first such event, scheduled for April 11 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The NEA is working with 11 high schools in the Washington area on a contest scheduled for April 19 in the Folger Shakespeare Library.

At both events, cash prizes of as much as $1,000 will be awarded to students who best present works by published poets.

The foundation and federal agency are looking to the National Spelling Bee and National Geography Bee as models for the event, in which high schoolers would rise through local, state or regional rounds.

By highlighting the works of established artists, the event would be a departure from the innumerable "slams" - competitions held in schools, bars, theaters and even on cable television - of performance poetry, in which writers declaim their own verses, raps or metered musings.

"I think that memorizing and mastering the great poems, the classic poems, require slightly different skills, an act of interpretation rather than expression," said Stephen Young, program director of the Poetry Foundation, the longtime publisher of Poetry magazine made newly ambitious by a $100 million gift from pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly. "And we want to emphasize the importance of reading poetry as well as performing it."

Young said the foundation and NEA "have begun to think about national implications of a contest. What we do will depend on our assessment of the pilot programs in Chicago and Washington, but we're hoping to introduce it nationally next school year."

Memorization and recitation of great works of verse were once standard elements of a classical education. Past generations of schoolchildren had stanzas of Shakespeare, Browning, Wordsworth, Dickinson or Frost drilled into their brains.

But whether as a reaction against a canon of literature or rote learning or a belief students should find their own muses, memorization and recitation of master poetry seem to have largely disappeared from U.S. classrooms over the last half-century.

"I think it may be because so many people were forced to memorize poems they didn't understand or like," said Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets in New York.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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