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Emily: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some. From “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder
April is the month which brings us in the United States showers, the start of baseball season, and Earth Day. It is also National Poetry Month. There are no parades held in its honor. Students don’t get time off from school to celebrate. And I’m pretty sure that Hallmark doesn’t even have a card for the occasion. Still, for those of us who love the English language, it is a time for appreciating the skill and art of composing verse.
There is also something else being acknowledged when we celebrate National Poetry Month – the talent of reciting poetry! This is not an ability which everyone shares. We can all read poetry aloud. But, delivering the lines of verse written by another, giving them life and expression as if from some metaphysical corner of the universe, that is a remarkable gift. We’ll look at the ways that poetry recitals are judged, the criteria by which experts review recitation, but keep in mind that there will always be intangibles which certain talented readers bring to their art which can never be fully taught.
Teachers and professors rely on something called a scoring rubric to judge the quality of a recitation of poetry. There are certain aspects of the reading which they all look for, and then each reader is graded on how well the reader performed in each category.
Does the reader clearly understand what the author is conveying, with all the nuances of language structure, irony, and imagery?
The reader must convey confidence through body language and personal poise. There should be eye contact with the audience, but the reader should also appear relaxed, but never false.
Vocal projection comes from the diaphragm. Let the words come out strong and true. They should be properly paced, never slow or too rapid. With rhyming poetry, there may be a tendency to recite in a sing-song manner, and this must be avoided. Line breaks are often the key to great poetry. The reader must know where to put those breaks, and how long to make any pause. Finally, of course, the reader must know how to pronounce every word in the poem, and to properly articulate each word.
Body gestures, with hands and arms especially, must be carefully considered. The words are what matters with any poem, so readers must be careful not to act the poem. The reader must assume the appropriate tone and inflection for each line being read.
Whether the poem is being read or memorized, the reader must always speak each word. If the reader requires prompting, the recitation has failed.
How did the audience react to the reader? Judges will watch the audience, to get a feeling of how successful the recitation has been. Did the reader hold their attention? Did it seem that the audience understood the poet’s words and meaning through the reader’s performance?
The key to a great recitation is for the reader to identify with the poem. We all have things which seem to uniquely speak to us. I’m sure that you can think of stories, songs, films, and plays which seem almost personal, and truly mean something to you. The same is certainly true of poetry, as well. Find a poem that touches you emotionally. It doesn’t have to be sad, romantic, or even particularly deep. If it makes you laugh, or you can clearly see the imagery being presented and you can relate to it, then that’s enough.
Sometimes, the poem is completely enhanced by the reading, and the work seems much better than it is. The great actor, Jimmy Stewart, never pretended to also be a great poet, but when he read this poem about his dog on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, it became a classic moment in television history. Grab some tissues, and watch a master read a poem.
Photo by anthony rue on Flickr