“It is English, I promise,” English Ph.D. student Jon Quick joked before beginning to recite at Stanford’s Poetry Out Loud competition Tuesday evening. Then, for the next four minutes, an audience of about 60 sat in rapt silence as Quick, a first-year Ph.D. candidate, recited the first 52 lines of the epic poem Beowulf in the original Old English, complete with gestures and dramatic intonation.
Although many listeners had probably read the famous poem at some point, most had probably never heard it performed out loud. But a return to poetry’s origins as an oral tradition was the focus at the Poetry Out Loud competition on Tuesday, held at Levinthal Hall, home of the Stanford Humanities Center.
Members of the organizing committee emphasized that poetry is meant to be recited, not just read on a page. In opening remarks, fourth-year English Ph.D. student Justin Tackett explained that the purpose of the competition was “to return to poetry’s roots, to return to the vocal experience that creates, if nothing else, a community of listeners.”
Quick was the last of 10 students, both undergraduates and graduate students, who performed as part of the competition. They were the finalists chosen from over 30 students who originally auditioned for the Stanford Poetry Out Loud (SPOL) committee.
Although “Beowulf” was the only poem recited in Old English, the poems the finalists performed were incredibly varied, coming from different centuries, different cultures, and very different traditions. For example, Kristel Bugayong ’18 performed a Shel Silverstein poem, while Jay Reader ’17 performed a a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem. Elliott Lapin ’16 recited the first part of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
The variety of poems performed at the SPOL competition encourages a variety of recitation styles, Tackett said, which is different from other poetry competitions such as spoken word, where performers tend to recite in a similar style.
Amanda Licato Ph.D. ’18, another English graduate student and member of the organizing committee, explained that oral performance of poetry first became deemphasized in the 18th century, when novels grew popular and the private experience of reading became important. Although spoken word poetry is popular today, older poems tend to be performed less often.
“What’s special about this is that we’re reclaiming the history of poetry,” Licato said. “It’s meant to be said aloud and vocalized aloud, and all poets are aware of that.”
Before reciting, each student told the audience something brief about their poem — how it was found, or why it was chosen, or how it spoke to them. Some shared personal anecdotes.
One student, physics major Devangi Vivrekar ’17, said later that she had never recited poetry at an event like the SPOL competition before, but was inspired by an Introductory Seminar she’s taking called “Reading and Writing Poetry About Science,” in which students read their own poems and other people’s out loud. She recited a spoken word poem called “B,” by Sarah Kay.
“Her goal is to help people rediscover wonder, and how to walk through life appreciating all the little details that get lost in the rush,” Vivrekar said. “That’s something I really admire, and this poem is one of her masterpieces.”
After the student performances, there was an intermission while the judges, Professor Denise Gigante and Assistant Professor Claire Jarvis, both from the English department, made their decisions.
Meredith Charlson ’16 won this year’s competition with her performance of “Sea Change” by Jorie Graham, a poem published in 2008. Charlson had a little experience performing other people’s poetry, but said she hadn’t been in this type of poetry reading before. When she first got an email about the competition and decided to try out, she couldn’t think of poems that would work for the three to five minute time requirement.
Then Charlson’s mom, who had seen Jorie Graham speak, mentioned that some of Graham’s poems would be long enough. Charlson found Graham’s collection “Sea Change” at the library and decided to perform the title poem.
“It wasn’t super exciting to me when I chose it, but when I started practicing it and understanding where the breaks and everything were, it became much more interesting to me,” Charlson said.
She said it was challenging to try to convey the “chopped-up” feeling of the written poem in her performance, but interesting. She was also conscious of the relevance of the subject matter.
“It’s a poem about environmental activism, and questions like ‘What are the arts really doing?’ and ‘What are artists really doing in this battle that we’re all facing, that’s really urgent?’” Charlson said. “And we’re in the middle of a huge drought, so I thought it was appropriate for the context.”
Quick was the runner-up in the competition. Patrick Donovan ’18, who performed a 1917 poem by Wilfred Owen called “Disabled,” placed third. All three performers won cash prizes.
This was the fourth year SPOL has held a competition. Tackett, one of the original founders, said the idea came from a poetry competition at Oxford that he performed in while completing his master’s degree. He was one of the main organizers this year, along with third-year English Ph.D. student Abigail Droge. They said the event has grown every year. This year, it had to be held in a bigger venue than in years past, so as not to violate fire code.
“I think it’s really fun because it creates a great community in the room and you get to hear a lot of poetry you would never hear otherwise,” Vivrekar said. “It really revitalizes the tradition of spoken poetry.”
Contact Emma Johanningsmeier at ejmeier ‘at’ stanford.edu.