Poetry: Say it out loud

The secret to a good poetry recitation is subtly conveying the right emotions, at least according to Marshall School senior David Kamper. "That's what you're doing when you're reciting poetry, you're conveying attitudes," Kamper said. He would know.

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David Kamper recites “Death to Allegory” by Billy Collins in the Marshall school-wide Poetry Out Loud competition on Dec. 3. Kamper will compete at the state level next week. (Youtube screenshot)

The secret to a good poetry recitation is subtly conveying the right emotions, at least according to Marshall School senior David Kamper.

“That’s what you’re doing when you’re reciting poetry, you’re conveying attitudes,” Kamper said.

He would know. He has represented Marshall in the Minnesota Poetry Out Loud contest three times. Last year he took fifth place in the statewide contest. He is preparing to compete again after winning second place in Marshall’s school-wide competition.

Poetry Out Loud is a national contest that encourages students to learn about verse through memorization and recitation. The contest was created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation in 2006. Today, more than 2,300 schools participate nationwide.

Next week Kamper and the first-place winner of the Marshall contest, Anna Thickens, plan to travel with English teacher David Johnson to the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis to compete against the top speakers from other Minnesota schools.


“It revives this very personal and somewhat lost art of poetry recitation. There’s some magic that happens when you share a poem out loud in a room. It’s a very personal performance that you can’t get from simply reading a poem silently,” Johnson said.

Johnson has run this program at Marshall since he introduced it four years ago. It is a group effort from all the English teachers of grades 9-12.

At Marshall, all the students in the upper school memorize one poem. These poems are selected from a list of 600 approved poems on the Poetry Out Loud website. Each student recites their selected poem in their respective English classes. The top speaker in each class is chosen to compete in the school-wide competition.

“It’s kind of like a spelling bee, but with poetry,” Kramper said.

At the school competition, students must be prepared to recite two poems, one in each of the two rounds. A judging panel selects the top two students to represent the school in the state competition.

“Sometimes students discover a talent they didn’t know they had. Sometimes the students that do really well with recitation are students who don't do well in other aspects in the English classroom,” Johnson said.

Marshall isn’t the only high school in the area that competes in Poetry Out Loud. Ted Anderson, language arts teacher at Harbor City International School, brought the program back to the school last year. The students did not enter in time to compete at state last year, but plan to this year.

“It’s a unique combination of skills. There’s the performance element, some theater. But more importantly, the students have to be able to analyze complex texts. Their recitation has to mirror an understanding of subtleties in the poem,” Anderson said.


Anderson runs the program at Harbor City a little differently than Marshall. This year it was an elective in the Winter Symposium the first week of January. Anderson taught the importance of poetry and gave 12 students time to practice their recitations. On Jan. 9, the school competition was held. Senior Addison Smith and sophomore Abigail Etterson were selected to go to the state competition next week.

“I’m excited to go with them! I think it’s going to be great to see other students and their recitations. This is my first time going as well, so I’m personally excited as well,” Anderson said.

Kamper’s favorite part of the competition is to watch the other speakers.

“It’s so cool to be around other people who can recite well. To be able to show the true meanings of poems is a matter of artform. It’s a little nerve-wracking because you watch all of these great people and then it’s your turn to go up and recite,” Kamper said.

Kamper says he hopes to move past the fifth place position he earned last year. The state winner receives $200 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington D.C. for the national competition.

Johnson has had one state champion in his years organizing the program. Johnson first organized the program at Morris Area High School where his student, Mary Hu, won first place in 2008.

“It was an absolute thrill. You’re with some of the greatest writers and poets in the country, literally. I got to meet Garrison Keillor and Scott Simon from NPR,” Johnson said. “I remember going in the subway with a bunch of kids on our way to the competition. One of the kids just stood up and belted out his poem to everyone in the subway. It was a magic moment.”

But these students don’t spend all their time reciting poetry. Before Kamper can compete in Poetry Out Loud next week, he will compete in the state swimming competition. Kamper also competes in speech and plays trombone in the jazz band. In fact, Anna Thickens could not be reached for comment because she was at a week-long skiing competition.


“I’m excited to compete with her at state,” Kamper said. “She did a great job bring out the deeper part of her poems.”

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Anna Thickens recites “The Gift” by Li-Young Lee in the first round of the Marshall Poetry Out Loud Competition.

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