On March 13, 2015, I had the honor and the pleasure of serving as a judge at the state finals of the New Jersey Poetry Out Loud competition, held at Princeton University. For those of you unfamiliar with this program: Poetry Out Loud is a national poetry recitation competition administered by the National Endowment for the Arts. High school students in all fifty states memorize poems, which they recite during in-school contests. The goal is to advance to the regional, then the state, and ultimately the national level.
I live in Maine, where I have judged a number of Poetry Out Loud contests at both the regional and the state level. Yet despite my familiarity with the program, I was entirely unprepared for Poetry Out Loud, New Jersey-style. To begin with, I learned that 35,000 New Jersey students took part in the program this year. That’s a staggering number, one that reveals a significant commitment to poetry inside nearly every high school in the state. Behind the twelve finalists I heard at Princeton were thousands of students, teachers, administrators, civil servants, poets, and family members who had supported and celebrated these performers in their work. The result, at the state level, was a remarkable level of confidence and poise. The finalists were not simply acting out the works they recited. They were enacting them—allowing the clarion voice of the poem to speak for itself. The results were spellbinding.
I daresay that most of these students, as adults, won’t necessarily define themselves as poets. But listening to them recite reminded me that poetry is just as important for people who aren’t poets as it is for people who are. Reciting a poem, like singing a song, allows us to exist inside that emotional and intellectual space, to inhabit its corners and crevices. And as we take the poem into ourselves, it becomes a permanent resident of our inner world—a solace and a strength, for the rest of our lives. New Jersey’s commitment to poetry in its schools offers a lesson to teachers, poets, and administrators everywhere. Young people are eager to find poetry, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that poetry finds them.