Art Works Blog

Inside the NEA: Poetry Out Loud edition

In just a few short weeks, 53 young people from all over the U.S. will converge on Washington, DC, to compete for the hard-won title of 2013 Poetry Out Loud National Champion. Many of us at the NEA will happily be in the audience on April 29 and 30 cheering them on, and at the same time being equally happy to not be up onstage competing verse by verse. While we're not ready to take the mike quite yet, a few of us have decided, if called upon, which poems we'd memorize.

Read on to learn more and join us live or in DC for the Poetry Out Loud National Finals to hear the real recitation pros go to work! (Visit our News Room for details.)

Katie Lyles Levy, Accessibility

In either first or second grade Jack Prelutsky visited my school. I thought his poems were the greatest thing I had ever heard. The New Kid on the Block was the first book of poetry I ever owned. I memorized "Homework! Oh Homework!" I can still recite it to this day.

J. Rachel Gustafson, Public Affairs

Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You” is in my day book (a journal of sorts) and I read it as often as I can. I would say I am pretty close to memorizing it as things stand now---his words share a quiet power that will forever engage me. This poem speaks of love through visualizations and notions of fine art as well as the beauty in the everyday experience. My favorite stanza reads: “…and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them/ when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank/or for that matter, Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully as the horse/it seems they all were cheated of some marvelous experience/ which is not going to go wasted on me, which is why I am telling you about it.”

You can watch O’Hara recite the poem in his New York City apartment here. The reading was filmed just days before his untimely death.

Jessica Pena, International

Pablo Neruda's "Poema 15." I like this poem because while it's cold, it transmits a lot of emotions at the same time. I've always liked Neruda's poetry but this poem captures the reason why he's one of my favorites.

vEnessa Y Acham, Partnerships

I pondered, paused, and paced regarding this question, and the poem that repeatedly comes to mind is "Beowulf!"  "Beowulf" is by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet and the poem is dated between the eighth and the early 11th century.

Maybe I choose "Beowulf" because the poem consumed---what seemed to be at the time---a large portion of English studies during my sophomore or was it my junior year in high school. Now revisiting the poem, my memorizing the 3,182 alliterative lines may be an engaging talking point during receptions and other social gatherings.

I am more likely to memorize the poem "Recuerdo" by Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1950 The New York Times described her as “One of the greatest American poets of her time.” I came upon her captivating works while I was on retreat in New England. Millay was independent, an activist, and a gardener—--all traits that I admire. Yes, I can memorize the Millay poem that has 18 lines versus the 3,182 lines of "Beowulf."

Michael Holtmann, Literature and Arts Education

The question is a sly one, because it assumes that I have yet to memorize a poem that I find personally meaningful, but of course it’s true: I do not yet know Zbigniew Herbert’s wonderful poem “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito” by heart. Although his name may not be a familiar one, the late Herbert is one of my favorite poets. I admire his imagination and wit, his sense of irony, his humanity. “The Envoy” (“a sending away”) serves as the conclusion to a book called Mr. Cogito, named after Herbert’s ruminative alter ego, a recurring figure in his work. It directs us to take action: “Go where those others went to the dark boundary /for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize.” This sense of foreboding is mixed with steely resolve---“be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous”---but the poem is also inflected with hopefulness. The poem suggests that moving forward with self-awareness and integrity is itself a quiet triumph. It also has one of the greatest final lines of any poem: “Be faithful Go”

Paulette Beete, Public Affairs

I'd memorize T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." To borrow a phrase from the poet Maureen Seaton, it puts flowers in my mouth.

Craig McCord, Human Resources

"Invictus" by William Henley. This poem speaks to inner strength and perseverance. Going through the darkness and into the light. Taking the blows and still standing. Life.

Ira Silverberg, Literature

If I could remember all of Joe Brainard’s “I Remember,” I would be able to recite one of the great list poems of the 20th century by one of my favorite (post) New York School poets.

Maryrose Flanigan, Literature and Arts Education

I’d love to memorize "Endymion" by John Keats. His lines are a reminder to worship the beauty in life.

Alyce Myatt, Media Arts

Lucille Clifton's "Homage to My Hips." I would memorize this poem and recite it to myself every time I tried on a new pair of slacks, every time I passed a full-length mirror, and whenever I took that extra scoop of Haagen Dazs!

Laska Hurley, Visual Arts

"The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert Service. The poem is a great story set in the Yukon, has a wonderful since of time and place and two great characters. I also like the poem because it’s literature and folk history at the same time. The poem is over a hundred years old but it’s fresh as the day it was written.

My two favorite lines are: “A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail.” and “The Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold.”

There are over a gazillion Youtube versions, everything from Robert Service to Johnny Cash. Now I’m a big Cash fan, but I prefer the Robert Service recording.

Sidney Smith, Artist Communities and Presenting

"Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour. July 13, 1798" by Williams Wordsworth.

First off, if I were able to memorize these 159 lines, it would mean my mind had increased its capacity ten-fold. Can’t seem to remember anything these days. But this was one of the first poems I remember feeling in awe of and I still like to turn back to it. It’s lace sleeves, long hair, Romantic, and all the other clichés of traditional poetry, but at the center is a strong heart and what Seamus Heaney called “near geologic serenity.” No rushing, a young man describing a special place and his memory to his younger sister.

Asking a favorite poem is such a hard question, asking what poem I would memorize is a little easier but immediately makes me feel bad for not having memorized it. I did try once in college, but didn’t make it. That might have been the last time I could, but I have read it many times over the years and love coming back to it. I excerpted this bit for a funeral of my grandmother.

"…feelings/Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,/As have no slight or trivial influence/On that best portion of a good man's life,/His little, nameless, unremembered, acts/Of kindness and of love."

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