Miming Poems for Scholarships

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Every year on a Sunday in mid January, I drive to the Stern Center at the College of Charleston to support my school’s representative at the Regional Poetry Outloud recitation contest, and every year I drive home disgruntled because the judges – no matter who they are (politicians, poets, professors) – confuse recitation with acting, valuing gesture more than intonation, cadence, timbre.

One of this year’s winners literally beat her fist against her bosom as she screeched

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.

She delivered the last line of the poem, on the other hand, with pleading melancholy, in a ridiculous diminuendo, which snuffed out the concluding iamb, turning it into a trochee, her voice falling ever more silent:

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The irony that the poet is essentially asking God to rape him did not seem to register at all.

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Although one of the three selected to go on to the next round was superb, the other two’s gestures distracted from the aural subtleties of the verse, their voices sometimes eliding syllables to register (literally) high-pitched emotion while their arms fluttered.

Of course, these complaints may strike the skeptic as sour grapes; however, from the official POL website, here’s poet Kwame Dawes instructing judges on physical appearance:

I think the key thing to remember, that we expect students to remember, is  the poem comes first.  Everything else that you do with your body, with  your voice, with your arms, whatever you do, has to be in service of the poem.  If  your body takes over and becomes the lead in this dialogue, then the poem disappears.  The one thing about Poetry Outloud is that the poem comes first. What we want the person to do is to think about the poem when they (sic) leave, and therefore it takes incredible economy of body expression to convey what is happening with the poem. (my bold type)

Here’s another advisor on the link instructing judges on “dramatic appropriateness.”

The student brings – and I put drama in quotes – but brings the drama that is  appropriate to the content of the poem. And I also think  that it means that  the student does not substitute what I would consider artificial emotion for the poem’s appropriateness.  If the poem is dealing with difficult subject matter, the student should maintain his or her poise and not let the content of the poem to give him or her license to become an actor or theater performer. (again my bold)

Does it not strike the judges that the so-called professional poets who read at the event stand essentially still and let their voices do the work? I’ve seen masters like Archibald MacLeish, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop (among many lesser lights ) read in person, and none of them mimed the meanings of the poems as they recited them.

As I was listening to my student’s beautiful rendition of “Dover Beach,” her clear, sad voice articulating every syllable, pausing at each caesura – “[b]egin, and cease, and then again begin” – her own cadence “tremulous” and “slow” –  I thought to myself, “If only the judges could hear recordings of these recitations.”

If only they checked out the linked video above before they whipped out their scoring sheets.

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