Poetry Out Loud Returns To Newtown High School
The Newtown High School English department held its school-wide Poetry Out Loud competition January 27, which was coordinated by English department faculty members Dr Michell Toby and Brian Tenney.
Poetry Out Loud is a nationwide poetry recitation contest, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and The Poetry Foundation. Newtown High School has not held its competition since 2020. Tenney calls this year’s event a “resurgence.”
Prior to the event at NHS, classrooms held their own competitions to come up with a representative contestant, where, according to Tenney, the process to choose who would advance to the school-wide contest varied.
In the school-wide competition, participants recite the poems by their own interpretation in front of an audience.
“It’s both a public speaking exercise and an analysis exercise,” Tenney said. “It’s a really nice fit for English classes.”
For the first round, contestants memorized their poems and were allowed to bring a paper to reference for the following round — a choice intended to increase the event’s accessibility, Tenney said. All candidates were invited back to participate in round two.
The panel of judges included former NHS faculty members Ellie Hanna and Cathy Sosnowski, as well as current faculty member Wendy LaBarge, and Carol Ann Davis, a professor of English at Fairfield University. The panel was joined by NHS student teachers Ben Meleschnig, who served as an accuracy judge and prompter, and Tyler Monroe, a scoring assistant for the event.
There was a pin-drop atmosphere at the competition — a still quietness that was maintained while reciters took the lecture hall stage. Then, pockets of the audience would erupt into cheers when a friend finished their chosen piece.
Respectful comments would also be made of a classmate’s performance. Skylar Lewis’ iteration of “A Poison Tree” by William Blake prompted an audience member to say, “That was good, I liked that,” to their neighbors.
Some poems were pastoral, emotional images of landscapes and nature. Others reflected memories, or powerful ideas.
Connecting To Experience
Certain poems seemed to connect directly to the experience of being in high school, which may have made it more compelling for the audience present. Jillian Bobowick recited “Nowhere Else to Go” by Linda Sue Park, containing the lines “Make enough noise, maybe the grown-ups will finally hear the scream in the title.”
Among the powerful performances was Grace Snowden’s recitation of “This Is Not A Small Voice” by Sonia Sanchez. Sanchez wrote of Black voices “navigating the hallways of our schools, spilling out on the corners of our cities.”
Two reciters, set to go back to back in the first round, coincidentally chose Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Ocean.” However, the students’ oral interpretations of the poem were distinctly different.
Some of the other poems iterated by NHS students were “Prayer for My Father” by Robert Bly; “Wind, Water, Stone” by Octavio Paz; “Cartoon Physics” by Nick Glen; “Summer At North Farm” by Stephen Kuusisto; and “Snowflake” by William Baer. Third place winner Matiya Kouassi delivered “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti in a compelling performance.
Sayward Parsons, an NHS English teacher in attendance, said “it’s equalizing” for students to be onstage at the Poetry Out Loud competition. “You can’t tell what grade they’re in.”
The event might be summarized best by a line from second place winner Ava Baroody’s chosen poem, “Sestina in Prose.” Katharine Coles writes: “In other words, we let everyone find her own figure of speech.”
Maddie Roe, declared champion, earned the judges’ favor with her interpretation of “Much Madness is divinest Sense” by Emily Dickinson. Roe’s recitation of the Dickinson piece felt theatric, and seemed to illuminate an expanded quality in the short poem.
There were 36 total participants in NHS Poetry Out Loud Day, and three winners were declared via email after all scores were tallied. Maddie Roe, an NHS junior, took first place, followed by junior Ava Baroody in second and freshman Matiya Kouassi in third.
As the school-wide winner, Roe will have the option to compete against other champions in the state. If she wins the state contest, Roe will be eligible to compete in a national competition in Washington, D.C.
Reporter Noelle Veillette can be reached at email@example.com.