Poetry lives on at Wilton High School

Following two accurate and well-performed poetry recitations, Tyus Southern, a junior, was named the winner of Wilton High School’s Poetry Out Loud competition on Feb. 10.

During the school finals competition in Wilton High School’s Little Theater, Tyus competed against 10 of his peers: Brooke Amodei, Griffin King, Nickia Muraskin, Erin Bronner, Maya Seshan, Essence Williams, Kara Bartek, Cameron Langhoff, Abby Schiff and Trevor Lilly.

For the school finals competition, each student had to memorize and recite two poems.

Tyus recited “Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest” by B.H. Fairchild in the first round and “I Am the People, the Mob” by Carl Sandburg in the second.

“One poem had to be pre-20th Century and the other could be current,” said Sandra Soson, English teacher and Wilton High’s Poetry Out Loud coordinator. “One of the two had to be under 25 lines.”

Wilton High has participated in the national poetry recitation contest for the past five years, thanks to Ms. Soson.

As the school’s Poetry Out Loud coordinator, Ms. Soson is not only responsible for providing teachers with materials and information on the competition’s due dates but she also organizes the classroom, grade level and school finals competition.

In 2009, Ms. Soson attended a monthlong poetry seminar in Boston, where she was introduced to Poetry Out Loud.

“It’s run by the Poetry Foundation, which suddenly received a whole bunch of money, and they deliberated about how to best spread poetry in our culture and in our country,” said Ms. Soson.

“One of the things they came up with was the Poetry Out Loud contest where kids memorize and recite poems.”

The difference between Poetry Out Loud and a poetry slam, said Ms. Soson, is that in a poetry slam, people make up and recite their own poems, while Poetry Out Loud requires the memorization and recitation of someone else’s poem.

“There are about 600 poems listed on the Poetry Out Loud website, and students have to memorize and recite a poem from that list,” she explained.

Students first compete in classroom competitions, then each classroom’s winner competes at the grade level.

Grade leve winners compete in a school finals competition where they are judged on their performance and poem recitation accuracy.

“There is one accuracy judge and three performance judges, who score the students on physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of difficulty of the poem, evidence of understanding, and overall performance,” explained Ms. Soson.

As Wilton High’s Poetry Out Loud school champion, Tyus will go on to compete at the state level in March.

If Tyus is named the state winner, he will receive $200 and Wilton High School will get a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books.

Tyus would also go on to compete in the national Poetry Out Loud competition in Washington, D.C., in April.

“The national competition is a pretty big deal. It’s like the National Spelling Bee,” said Ms. Soson.

“There are 54 total contestants from every state and territory in the United States, and they compete over three days.

“The contestants are divided into about three regions, and there’s a first, second and third for each region that go on to be the top nine winners in the final competition,” said Ms. Soson.

The national champion wins $20,000, second place receives $10,000, third receives $5,000, and the fourth- through ninth-place winners each receive $1,000.

The first year Wilton High participated in Poetry Out Loud, the school champion, Edwin Carvajal, won the state championship.

“He and I went to Washington and it was very exciting,” said Ms. Soson.

“He did not place in the top nine in the national competition, but we were still so proud of him.”

Ms. Soson said although the concept of memorizing a poem went by the wayside over the years, she believes it is worthwhile.

“Kids really have to understand the poem in order to do a good job at reciting it — the poem really has to become part of them,” she said.

“They understand the poem in just this wonderful way and then they give it to an audience as sort of a gift. It’s really wonderful to hear a poem recited with meaning.”