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Bringing Verse to Life

Arlington students energize National Poetry Recitation Contest.

Brian Eberly, a junior at Yorktown High School, shared a family tradition with the audience at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Eberly performed in the National Poetry Recitation Contest on Tuesday, April 19.

Eberly gave a rendition of "The Jabberwocky" by "Alice in Wonderland" author Lewis Carroll. Carroll's phantasmagoric tale of a prince who slays a fiery-eyed beast is a favorite in his family, Eberly said.

"'The Jabberwocky' is a poem I was kind of raised with and in my family, we have a certain way we tell it that's passed down," said Eberly. "My father taught me how to recite it and his father taught him. It's the way we all recite it."

Elizabeth Wagner, a sophomore at Yorktown, gave an emotionally-charged reading of "Sympathy" by Paul Lawrence Dunbar — "I know why the caged bird sings."

"There's so much great poetry out there," said Wagner, 15. "And it comes with so much depth and feeling. I just thought it would be really cool to be a part of this."

Nationwide, more than 4,000 students took part in the contest. Students competing in the contest had already won competitions in their local schools.

Eberly and Washington-Lee freshman Halle Ritter both advanced to the finals of the competition.

Eberly put the same dramatic talents to work in the final round with a reading of "War is Kind" by Crane. Halle Ritter, who impressed judges with her poise on stage, recited Rudyard Kipling's "If" in the first round and Carl Sandford's "I Am the People, the Mob," in the final round.

THE PANEL that judged the contest included poet E. Ethelbert Miller, the Folger Shakespeare Library's director and Shakespeare scholar, Gail Kern Paster and U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8).

Readings were evaluated for accuracy, inflection and demonstrated understanding of the texts along with the use of hand gestures and eye contact.

Moran likened the pressure students faced on stage to that of his own political career, noting that he once fainted from nerves while giving a speech during his tenure as mayor of Alexandria. Speaking before a crowd, he said, takes practice.

"I used to be so nervous in high school," said Moran. "I'd start perspiring whenever I thought I might be called on by a teacher. I'd turn bright red."

For Moran, the contest was a positive sign of America's progress in education.

"No matter how discouraged we get when we see the statistics in this country that show we're not investing what we need to be into education, you can see here that there will be so many outstanding young men and women representing us in the next generation," said Moran.

THE PRIZE — season tickets to a series of poetry reading at the Folger, a $1,000 award and a $2,000 grant to the winner's school for the purchase of poetry books — went to Stephanie Oparaugo of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington. Oparaugo, a student born in Nigeria, will advance to the national finals.

The contest was organized by the National Endowment for the Arts. According to Chairman Dana Gioia, poetry recitation as a competitive event dates back to ancient Greece and the earliest Olympic games. Gioia said the contest is part of the NEA's initiative to foster a broader interest in poetry among America's youth. The number of students who took part, he said, was a surprise even to him.

"It's much more than we originally expected," said Gioia. "This is a pilot program. We hope to learn from this experience and, next year, we're hoping to bring it to all 50 state capitols in America."

In its 2004 "Reading at Risk" study, the endowment's researchers documented a significant rate of decline in literary reading among young people, dropping 10 percent or an estimated 20 million readers between 1982 and 2002. But the most significant decrease in literary reading was seen among people ages 18 to 24, which declined 55 percent more than that of America's total adult population.

"Learning to recite poetry also invites personal growth," said Gioia. "Although many student may initially be nervous about reciting in front of their peers, the experience will prove valuable, not only in school but also in life. Much of the future success of students will depend on how well they present themselves in public."