Truth Thomas, editorial board member of the Tidal Basin Review… (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore…)
"Tiger, tiger burning bright
"In the forest of the night,
"What immortal hand or eye
"Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"
Not too many teens have the gravitas to gaze steadily into the faces of a judge's panel and a sea of observers while convincingly wondering aloud — on live TV and in late-18th-century verbiage, no less — about the maker who created the tiger.
But that's just what the winner of the county level of Poetry Out Loud, a national literary contest, managed to do Wednesday.
With dramatic expression and flowing cadence, Amy Greaney of Wilde Lake High School made reciting William Blake's six-stanza poem "The Tyger" from memory seem as natural as having a conversation with a friend.
"And what shoulder and what art could twist the sinews of thy heart?" asked the senior as if it were the most normally worded question in the world, even though it was written more than two centuries ago.
Greaney's confident turn earned her first place in a field of eight high school students at the local level of the pyramid competition. Poetry Out Loud was founded in 2005 on the premise that elements of slam poetry, spoken word and theater could be combined to encourage mastery of public speaking and deeper exploration of literary heritage through memorization and performance.
"I hoped that I might have a chance at winning," Greaney said afterward. She took third place last year and is also captain of Wilde Lake's debate team and a member of the school's student-run Shakespeare Club. "This [recognition] is the highest praise I could receive."
Two other winners — runner-up Torren Graves of Oakland Mills and third-place finisher Christina Alms of Reservoir — also exhibited the impressive interpretive skills needed to elevate listeners' understanding of the words of such poets as Longfellow and Shelley, as well as those of a few lesser-known writers.
"A poem in the air is not the same poem as it was on the page — the drama and charm of its unfolding is completely, particularly alive and intimate as it passes from one body into another," wrote one national judge on the poetryoutloud.org website.
An audience of 60 teachers, parents and students apparently agreed as they listened silently and clapped enthusiastically during the hourlong competition, streamed live on HCPSS-TV. (It can be viewed online at hcpsstv.granicus.com.)
"These students all owned the language," said Carla Du Pree, one of four judges and the executive director of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. "It's always amazing to hear students recite and to watch them get past their nervousness."
The other judges were Mary Teague, English facilitator with the county school system; Truth Thomas, local author of three collections of poetry; and Peggy Walton, chair of the county's secondary language arts advisory committee.
The panel scored entrants on their physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of difficulty and evidence of understanding, capped with an overall performance rating, according to the website.
Zeleana Morris, county coordinator of secondary language arts, served as emcee and took the podium to introduce each student. She also offered quotes by famous authors on the art of writing as well as facts about the derivation of Columbia's street names, which were gleaned from the works of various poets and literary figures.
This is the second year that Howard County has participated in Poetry Out Loud, co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation via state arts agencies in all 50 states and Washington.
Local organizers are hoping more county high schools will compete next year.
"Now that we've gotten the idea to broadcast live in the TV studio, we'll be able to let other Howard County schools see right away what they're missing," said Linda Joy Burke, state coordinator for the Maryland State Arts Council, which administers contests in 23 counties and Baltimore City. The video of last year's competition, held at Homewood Center, was posted several weeks later on the February 2010 edition of Parent-Teacher Connection.
"The idea is to engage the whole state of Maryland," said Burke, a Columbia resident and established poet and writer. Since Maryland is a small state, there are only three regional contests, but that number should double as more counties get involved, she said.
This year, 13 of Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City are participating. In 2009, 325,000 students took part nationwide, according to the competition's website.
Burke, who had her first verse published when she was 15, empathized afterward with a few students who had brief memory lapses during their performances and required prompting by a judge.
"It's tricky when you watch a kid and you know they messed up. You just want to scoop them up and tell them it's OK," she said. "Some of these works were really hard poems to interpret."