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Experiential Learning: New Hampshire Prep School Meets Poetry Out Loud

Suzanne Dewey
Does poetry matter? In this age of technology, speed, hacks, and brevity that tends to de-emphasize creative thought and expression, you might be surprised.
 
Does poetry even matter anymore?
In this age of technology, speed, hacks, and brevity that tends to de-emphasize creative thought and expression, you might be surprised. For the past several weeks, this New Hampshire prep school delighted in the recitation and expression of poetry, so much so, that the entire school goes on a poetic journey.
 
Poetry Out Loud, a national competition that takes place in individual classrooms and culminates in an annual national final, began in 2005. New Hampshire independent schools were invited to participate in 2007; Holderness School and Academic Dean Peter Durnan took up the challenge immediately. Poetry Out Loud offers its vision as a way of encouraging students to not only learn about great poetry but to also develop public speaking skills, build confidence, and find meaning in literary history.
 
Journey of Meaning
Just as the path to the national final is a challenging journey, (last year, Eleni Spiliotes ’20 represented Holderness at the regional competition and then earned a place at the New Hampshire contest) the path for an individual student takes on meaning and nuance at every stage. With each recitation, there is new awareness for word relationships and figurative meaning but reading poetry aloud in a small class can also foster empathy, develop community as well as promoting speaking and listening skills. The language of poetry can transform awareness; the contestant, as well as the listener, can find surprising and insightful meaning in the poem and the experience.
 
Over the twelve years that New Hampshire prep schools have been invited to participate, Holderness has engaged in Poetry Out Loud; the competitions continue to grow. Peter Durnan indicated that early on, only a few English classes participated but now most do and with the growing enthusiasm, a semi-final round has been added and the final round has the entire school assembled. Peter relates “almost all teachers take part -- I think the only who didn't were teachers teaching senior electives. All class winners are encouraged to move to the semi-finals.  And anyone who wants, can jump in the semi-finals. I love the ‘open’ nature of the semis. This year, over 30 students volunteered their time to vie in the semis. The top eight advanced to the school finals.”
 
Experiential Learning
Poetry Out Loud (POL) endeavors in experiential learning and maybe that is why Peter joyfully recounts what he believes is one of the best parts of POL:
 
The best feature is that it gives every kid a poem to know and own. In late January, at Holderness I often say to kids on campus (like in the lunch line) ‘Let's hear your first line.’  Everyone knows what I am asking and almost all kids can knock out a line or two. I was at Dartmouth, two years back taking my kids to see Twelfth Night. Sam Macomber ‘11, then a senior there, stopped by the bus to say hello. He recited a little Hamlet that he had memorized and then I asked him if he remembered "St. Francis and the Sow," a poem by Galway Kinnell that he had recited in POL four years earlier.  He shook his head but gave it a try and it all came back to him -- he recited the whole thing. That's the power of this game.
 
Risk-taking, Empathy…Magic
As Peter notes, that is the power of the individual experience but there is something that happens to the entire school when Poetry Out Loud visits. Maybe it is watching someone recite a poem in a profound and moving manner, or hearing someone who has mastered English, not their native tongue, offer new depth and passion in their recitation, but most likely it is the shared experience of vulnerability, risk-taking, and often flight that profoundly touches the school. Peter Durnan shares, “the courage kids show reciting aloud -- even in classes, this is an act of human bravery...And the beautiful surprises.  Three weeks back Nick Grammas ‘18 lost his grandmother…he recited "Quite Frankly" in her honor and it took my breath away…I could cite ten moments that were remarkable (e.g. Buzby doing jumping jacks).  It might not always be so, but over the past decade, this program has been sprinkled with magic dust.  I'm thankful.”
 
This year's Poetry Out Loud School Finals were magnificent and ended in a tie between Eleni Spiliotes '20 and Yarmony Bellows '19. The tie-breakers recommended by the national Poetry Out Loud system were not of any use. The two had nearly identical scores. On the advice of the state Poetry Out Loud organization, we referred back to scores from the school's semi-finals and used those to break the tie, resulting in our naming Yarmony Bellows this year's champion. Yarmony will come out of Outback briefly to compete in the state semi-finals on March 5th at 6 pm at Jean's Playhouse in Lincoln. Eleni will recite one poem as a calibrator at the event.
 
Final round competitors:
Yarmony Bellows ‘19“On Monsieur's Departure” Queen Elizabeth I
"Hunger Moon” Jane Cooper
Buzby Fisher ‘19“Testimonial” Dove
“Finale” Neruda
Meg Gillis ‘19“Love Song” Parker
“Numbers” Cornish
Nick Grammas ‘18"Brian Age Seven" Doty
“Quite Frankly” Mark Halliday
Chip Peterson ‘21"Hunger for Something" Twichell
“First Storm and Thereafter” Cairns
Cate Pollini ‘19"The Universe as Primal Scream" Smith
“Portrait d'une Femme” Pound
Eleni Spiliotes ‘20"Aria" Barber
“I Go Back to May 1937” Olds
Lexie von der Luft ‘19"On Quitting" Guest
“Writing" Nemerov


Poetry Out Loud Photos
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Holderness School
33 Chapel Lane, Holderness NH, 03245
mail P.O Box 1879 Plymouth, NH 03264-1879
phone (603) 536-1257