A Poetry Out Loud Interview with Ron Smith
With the state finals of the 2010 Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Competition under way around the country, Poetry Daily asked the poet Ron Smith, who has been associated with POL at St. Christopher’s School, in Richmond, Virginia, since POL's beginning, to share his experience of the competition .
Ron Smith is the author of Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery (University Presses of Florida) and Moon Road (LSU Press). His essays and poems have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies, including The Nation, Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Southern Review, New England Review, Georgia Review, and Poetry Daily. His newest poems are forthcoming in Shenandoah, Blackbird, Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, and a bilingual Italian-English anthology edited by Caterina Riccardi of Università degli Studi Roma Tre. Smith has taught modern American poetry at Mary Washington University and creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, where he also teaches in the University of Richmond’s Master of Liberal Arts Program. He was an Inaugural Winner of the $10,000 Carole Weinstein Prize in Poetry and is now one of the Curators of that prize.
We talked with Ron via e-mail:
Poetry Daily: How long have you and St. Christopher's School been involved with Poetry Out Loud? How did it get started?
Ron Smith: School-wide recitation of poems at St. Christopher's predates Poetry Out Loud. In the year 2000 I made an announcement in an Upper School assembly—and at the end of which, for some reason, I said maybe exactly these words to our high school students: “... and don’t forget that next month is National Poetry Month. Be sure to have your poem memorized and ready to recite on April 1st.”
I was being whimsical, maybe a little perverse. I think I was attempting to amuse and maybe frighten some students who needed waking up at 8 am. But almost as soon as I said it, I realized what an excellent idea it was—and a couple of the other English teachers came up to me afterwards grinning and said, “What a great idea!” I believe that was Key Randolph and Jay Wood. And right there we decided to launch a school-wide program that would revive a long-dormant tradition of public recitation at STC. The study of poetry was already an important part of the curriculum, from grade 9 through grade 12, but poetry memorization was not, and had not been for a long time.
Poetry memorization and declamation was, though, a big part of STC’s history. At alumni parties some of the older alumns, when they found out I taught English, would begin reciting poems they had memorized half a century before—and lighting up not just with nostalgia but also with the immediate pleasure of artfully shaped language and the fact that it was in their heads. Look what I can do! And look how much fun it is to do! Their pleasure was unmistakable and catching. They loved knowing the poems, loved hearing one another recite. I remember there developed a kind of contest—both sharing and competing—at one of the reunion parties, after one gentleman did a big chunk of Robert Service and then other guys, hearing the lines, came over and did their own Robert Service or Kipling poems. I believe that was the time someone did Emerson’s “Concord Hymn.” Did it beautifully, by the way.
Anyhow, in 2000 we created a new tradition at STC, one that harkened back to the beginnings of the school almost a century before, back when people everywhere memorized and recited poems. (In a one-room schoolhouse in Stilson, Georgia, in the Great Depression, Miss Skipper made my father memorize “To a Waterfowl” and parts of “Thanatopsis” and “Snowbound,” poems he immediately came to love.)
The STC English department decided that every student had to find a poem he would like to know by heart, get his teacher to approve it, and then, on April 1st—and for the entire month—be prepared to recite that poem anywhere, anytime. For the whole month of April we had students reciting in English class, in the hallways, on the sidewalks, in chapel, in the Dining Hall, even in the locker rooms and on the athletic fields. It turned out to be a smashing success. Guys who thought they couldn’t do it or were going to hate doing it eventually would practically chase their teachers down the sidewalk to recite their poems at them. That first year a 9th grader introduced me to a fine Mark Van Doren poem I’d never heard of, another to a Frost poem I hadn’t recalled ever reading.
The second or third year one of my students who had been fairly lazy about homework all year astonished us all by reciting in class every syllable of “Tintern Abbey.” It was the last day of April, and everyone in class had recited for the group except for him. What about my poem? he asked. “Tintern Abbey,” eh? All of it? Yes, he said. Several guys had done “Fire and Ice” and other rather short pieces. We had moved on to other work and didn’t really have time to hear the whole poem. Besides, we all expected a toneless, stumbling, much-prompted and generally painful performance. So I told him to start it and that I’d stop him when we needed to move on. He stood up and began. As the poem unfolded,—out of this unlikely, uncompetitive, unliterary young man—amazement filled the room. Line after enchanting line, not brilliantly done, but competently. And the great poem unfolded in the air. Stopping him would have been an atrocity. Eyes grew wider and wider. When he finished, every mouth was open and I had to wipe away tears. He got a huge ovation from his classmates and a red wheelbarrow full of extra-credit from me. Not one guy in that room will ever forget that. Cheering. Palpable gratitude. It’s one of the great moments in my teaching career.
When Poetry out Loud came to Virginia in 2004-5, we were of course delighted. It threw our calendar off, though—April had to come a couple of months early. The very first year of the National Competition, my student Johnny Coyle won the state contest with “Dover Beach,” Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” and “My Last Duchess.” Johnny was good with Arnold and Browning, but he discovered that he had a kind of genius at presenting Hass. I’d be surprised if Hass ever did “Meditation” better himself. The next year Johnny finished second in the state, losing by a hair because he skipped 12 ½ lines of “My Last Duchess”—nearly a sonnet’s worth! And he still lost by only a point or so. Of course, he deserved to lose—but he was that good. He had traded in the rather quiet “Dover Beach” for the nearly unbearable “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” his third poem, a piece that I doubted he would ever quite inhabit believably. But Johnny finally got it, finally became that traumatized, bitter, pleading soldier. You know how a whole room can soar with exhilarated pathos?
Our school-wide POL winners have been as different as you could imagine: thin, essentially casual, Johnny Coyle, and robust, somewhat formal Kyle Wittenauer (a linebacker and tight end on his way to play football at Yale)—those two young men represent five years of school championships. But they have not simply dominated the school competitions. They had to fight hard every year to win. They had lots of competition. Some years the scores were so close that, to allow for anomalies and outliers of shifting panels of judges over several days, we had a number of playoffs. We’ve had dozens and dozens of impressive, moving, haunting, hilarious performances. Last year we had an electrifying—downright frightening—performance of “Annabel Lee” from a student no one knew was capable of such a thing. It was like watching demonic possession.
The baby-faced 9th grader proves to have a deep, brooding voice that comprehends John Clare’s “I Am.” The nearly mute 10th grader somehow finds his voice in Margaret Atwood. I tell you, the entire experience is full of miracles. And not just the miracles of teaching. There are miracles of language, of poetic form. Every year—every year—the adults discover how wonderful a poem is that we had more or less dismissed. Every year we discover new or neglected poems we want to memorize or teach ourselves—those first years it was Hardy’s “Channel Firing” and many others; last year it was Kooser’s “In the Basement of the Goodwill Store” and Eavan Boland’s “War Horse” and John O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter”; this year it was Eliot’s “La Figlia che Piange” and Lady Mary Chudleigh’s “To the Ladies.”
In some cases, even with familiar poets, teachers had been reading the sheet music instead of playing the CD—and then there it was: the thing itself, alive. It’s obvious that poems need to be heard. That poems live in the ear more than in the eye. Will Farley made that so clear with Hughes’s “Theme for English B” last year at the Library of Virginia. He made me realize I’d never given that poem enough credit, never felt its edges, its integrity.
PD: What sort of challenges are presented in mentoring a student headed into POL competition as compared with the traditional teaching of poetry at the high school level?
RS: The main challenge at STC is pushing guys to get inside every line of the poem—to feel the meanings of linebreaks, to soar emotionally on some rhythms, run aground on others. “Deserts of vast eternity”—that unexpected stressed syllable at the beginning of Marvell’s line—hell, you’ve got to let that slam you.
Sometimes you say to a student who’s just recited a poem: What does line five really mean? Long pause and puzzled look. Then: “Oh! That’s what that means!” That’s a satisfying moment.
We have no problem getting guys to gravitate to poems: the attraction of poetry is built in and all they’ve got to do is open up to it, just a little. Everybody finds something he needs, something that haunts him, something that makes him feel more like himself when he’s impersonating someone else. Poetry is about what it’s like to be a human being—in this situation, here and now. Every kid I’ve worked with gets that, even if he can’t say it.
But, yes, living the poem, that’s the hard part, pushing your consciousness into its every crook and nannie. (Ha!) Then, the problem is letting your audience know what’s going on inside you, which seems generally not such a problem for girls who recite. But males in American society are trained to hold it in. POL teachers have to get them to let it out. One challenge is to get the student to see/feel that the poem really is language at its most powerful and expressive--to understand at some level what that means. To understand that a human consciousness is encoded in and expressed through the music of words as well as their bare meanings. How words shake hands. How they tussle with one another.
Some schools seem to have a problem with over-acting. We’ve had very little of that at STC. Ours is a pretty laconic male atmosphere; histrionics are rarely a problem. Though we’ve had a few rather famous examples. Our theater guy, Rusty Wilson, agrees that the motive and emotion have to come from the inside out, that that’s the natural way to get it right. Rusty’s been a great help with our school champions.
Watching a student work through a poem, discovering its meanings and potentialities, channeling his own emotions and buried memories through the language—that’s a blast.
PD: What is it like to sit in the audience as students you have worked with go through their paces on stage?
RS: For me, it’s almost pure joy. Even when my son played concerts or recitals, I was never anxious (unlike, maybe, those who play the piano and remember their own stressful recitals). But I just love to watch people doing something well, to watch a person embodying art—really, becoming more fully, more memorably human. By the time we have the school-wide POL competition, I find the thing simply inspiring. This year an 11th grader I didn’t really know at all did a poem I was, frankly, dreading—the much-beloved “If—.“ I swear, he did it with a sensitivity and detailed nuance I really didn’t understand that the poem could sustain. He brought the poem out from behind its familiar screen of manly advice. He made it real. He made it new. And he made himself fascinating and complex, thoughtful and empathetic. I think everybody in the room at some level wanted then to get to know the kid better, to find what else was inside that mind and heart.
PD: How did the school competition go this year overall? What was the level of participation like?
RS: This year, in sheer numbers, school-wide participation was down. There seem to be more extra things going on than usual, both for faculty and for students.
But our school-wide contest has been in the past unwieldy, anyhow, sometimes taking many weeks to get through. We’ve been trying to include as many people as possible at every level, adults and students, and our panel of judges in the past has been way too big. There’s a great advantage to that, but obvious disadvantages, too. And we’ve had instead of one student winner from each English class, sometimes three or four. This year, because we had fewer classes and students participating, it was easier to hold the line on overlapping venues and shifting criteria and sheer extra time spent. Despite the fewer numbers, though, the guys who participated were really good. I was very proud of them. Even the kid who came in last—because he needed prompting several times—he simply got stuck for some reason—he did a piercingly beautiful interpretation Anne Bradstreet’s “Before the Birth of One of Her Children.”
PD: Have performances changed over time, in your experience of school, regional, and state-wide competitions?
RS: Performances are getting better, no question. The general level of performance his definitely risen. Especially last year at the State competition and this year at the Regionals, I found myself thinking: The poet who wrote that would LOVE to hear his words, her words, coming out of that impressive young person. I’m not sure what’s causing it, but more students seem to understand that (1) it’s not an opportunity to tear a passion to tatters, as Hamlet says, and (2) the poem’s not just a bunch of dusty words to deliver. Students, male and female, seem to be understanding their poems in more detailed, more vital ways. Why? I hope it’s because poetry is being taught with more verve and intelligence. When I was a first- or second-year teacher I was in an audience of English teachers at which John Ciardi glared and growled, “Poetry is the worst-taught subject in American schools.” Back then, I believed he was probably right. Maybe it’s not true now.
Of course, at all levels of competition, we need more poets as judges. We need judges who know their stuff, who know and are devoted to the entire range of verse in English, from Chaucer to Chudleigh, from John Donne to Stephen Dunn, Blake and Wordsworth, Dickinson and Whitman, Eliot and Pound and Frost and Stevens and Williams, Auden and Bishop, Hughes and Plath, Heaney and Muldoon, Jarman and Cairns, Lynn Emanuel and Eavan Boland. If there’s anything missing in the system right now, I think that’s it. Too many judges don’t know and embody the past and present of poetry.
PD: You’ve taught poetry and writing for a good while now: what values are added by POL to the experience and study of poetry for students who choose to participate? What do you see them taking away from the competition?
RS: My students seem to care about poems more, to respect poems, to love their details. Sharing the poem with an audience spins out the web of the art, connects students to one another through the mind of the poet. Over the past few years I’ve heard a fair number of students quoting poems to one another in perfectly natural ways. Sharing the poem with an audience connects people who wouldn’t be connected otherwise, and it connects the past to the present. Our school runner-up this year fell in love with Bill Matthews’s “Onions.” And he caused some of his classmates to fall in love with it.
Our students appreciate the fact that we don’t tell them which poems to choose—and that the POL online anthology is so full and so varied they can find something no one else has noticed, something that puts a hook in them. I had a big, tough football lineman last year who became infatuated with Linda Gregg’s “The Lamb” and Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman.” I could tell he admired those poems much more than he wanted to admit. That he felt depths and mysteries his spirit wanted to examine. Delighted puzzlement—I see that everywhere in POL. A desire to get under, behind, deeper into whatever that thing is in the poem.
PD: Much has been said about the resurgence in recent years of poetry as an oral art form, influenced by a variety of perceived factors: Robert Pinsky’s very visible and ardent advocacy during his term as poet laureate, through his Favorite Poem Project; the poetry slam and spoken word movements in cities and towns around the country; the immense popularity of hip-hop; the power of technology and new media to make performance freely available to anyone with access to the internet; and now the growth of the Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Competition. Did you and your colleagues and fellow poets see this coming? Is it here to stay? Is it manifested in other ways in the STC community apart from POL?
RS: I didn’t see it coming. As I had been tracking educational trends, it looked to me like serious poetry was on its way out in high schools. I sure as hell hope POL is here to stay. It can help to slow or maybe halt the decline of serious reading the National Endowment for the Arts has documented. In classrooms where English is a vital, living enterprise, I do think something has changed, and that POL is part of the change, both a sign of and one of the causes of the change. In the average classroom—and I have been a student in a more than a few average classrooms—probably not. My sense is that the cultural slippage of poetry and serious fiction generally continues. There are so many fine writers today who have such a paltry audience. It can be terribly disheartening. If only people knew what they were missing! So many more people have read Dan Brown’s Code than have read Cormac McCarthy’s Road. McCarthy’s book’s a poem, by the way. The best words in the best order, as Coleridge said.
My creative writing class in the fall gave a reading at the end of the course—students were required to select one of their own poems that was both a good poem and right for the occasion, a poem that works well in a reading. Every student read his or her one poem. (At the senior level we share students with our sister school, St. Catherine’s.) So they read their poems, poems that had become intelligent and moving and sometimes very powerful over twelve weeks of revision. After each student had read the one required poem, people began requesting permission to read another and then another. All for the right reasons, all for the love of language, for the love of pouring minds into sound, for the opportunity to surprise and delight and twist the brains of their classmates. It was another hour and a half of teaching I hope I’ll never forget. They were reading poems, not show-off pieces, presenting art, not ego.
It seems to me that Poetry Out Loud is helping to right a popular poetry culture that had gotten somewhat out of balance, that had shifted too far toward propaganda and rant and empty language. POL students seem to have grasped that language is best used not as a bludgeon or a narcissistic mask but as an artistic medium.
At the Nationals in 2005 there was far too much posturing and shouting. As far as I can tell, that stuff is almost gone now.
I think Will Farley’s choice of poems last year and his beautiful, understated delivery have helped the whole cause a great deal. In 2005, Jackson Hille won the National Championship with the same sort of delivery. Sincerity, intelligence, feeling, humanity—that’s what moved the audiences and judges.
In choosing poems, it’s important for students to let the poems speak to them rather than simply going for the long, difficult, immediately impressive poems. Farley did Williams’s relatively slight “Danse Russe”—and did it memorably. I was surprised that a student gunning for first place chose such a poem. It’s a great sign.
As for delivery, my advice to students is simple: When in doubt, underplay it. Respect the words. They know what they want. Be yourself—but be the version of yourself that can best inhabit this particular poem. Don’t force it, don’t shout—but don’t put us to sleep, either. Learn the words—then learn to feel them. Listen to them. Find the drama in the poem, the drama of consciousness, the drama of saying and unsaying, of pushing forward then pulling back. Make your heart hurt itself, your brain turn against itself. Did I say simple?
PD: Do you ever recite poetry out loud yourself—apart, that is from the readings you do of your own poems and books? To whom do you declaim when you declaim? What was the first poem you can remember memorizing? The most recent?
RS: OK, I admit it. I recite poems when I’m alone. Just for the fun of it. Limericks, silly things. When a serious snow sets in, I’m in the last stanza of Stevens’s “Blackbird”:
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
Can you get more deliciously wintry than that? Can you stick a bird more firmly in a tree?
When the moment is right—to illustrate a point, to illuminate a moment, to match one writer’s words to another’s—I say poems to my students, my colleagues, my family.
Being forced to memorize speeches from Shakespeare in grades 8, 9, 10—along with the Preamble to the Constitution—those were my first experiences. “Friends, Romans, countrymen... “ “Is this a dagger I see before me, /The handle toward my hand?” The beginning of Byron’s “Prisoner of Chillon” lodged in my head in high school. And some Emily Dickinson, some Wordsworth, Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” “Jenny Kissed Me,” a perfect little verbal machine. My friend and first department chair George Squires and I used to shoot poems back and forth at each other. He taught me “Gamboling on the Gumbo.” If you want to plant a poem in an audience’s head forever, I recommend Richard Armour’s “Going to Extremes.” Audience members from decades ago have come up to me to recite it. Children and adults I speak to always remember it and love saying it and hearing themselves say it.
PD: You told me a story once about your, at the time any way, very young grandson’s Wallace Stevens performances—“The Emperor of Ice Cream,” was it, or another poem?
RS:The last poem I taught my grandson was one I picked up when I was in elementary school. He and I love to play with words; it’s like tossing a Frisbee back and forth. We’ll do rhyme for a half hour, alliteration for a half hour. One summer day we played all day with contradiction. That’s when I remembered what I call (now) the Contradiction Poem:
Back to back they faced each other.
Drew their swords and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise
And came to arrest those two dead boys.
If you don’t believe my lie is true,
Ask the blind man—he saw it, too.
I cannot remember who said that to me when I was ten or so on the Sprague Elementary School playground—but I seem to remember realizing at the time it would be there forever in my head. I have no idea who wrote it, either. I should check.
Russell Byrd Whistle Chad Smith—that’s what I call my grandson—he can still do “Emperor.” I think it’s still true that his only error is “skidars” for “cigars,” an error I haven’t corrected. He never had any trouble with “concupiscence,” by the way. One day he’ll know what it means, I guess.