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What does a poem mean? A whole lot when it’s recited to an eager crowd

When I am driving in the country at night the same words will always pop into my head. I look at the white line disappearing past my headlights and I think, "The road was a ribbon of moonlight." This line has been on repeat ever since I had to memorize a few stanzas of The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes's sentimental narrative poem from 1906, when I was about 13. Anyone who has had to memorize poems will have those lines suddenly superimpose themselves over the most banal of images, forever. This month, looking at the muddy garden or the slick street, I have barely stopped intoning, "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote," because that is how I actually see the muddy garden, now, knowing those lines: through sound.

Which is why I am so excited about the upcoming national poetry-recital contest, Poetry in Voice, whose finals will be judged in Toronto on May 14 and 15. The contest, now in its third year, is open to high-school students across Canada and $25,000 in prize money will be given out to the winning students and their school libraries. It works like this: Students enter by choosing a category (English, French or bilingual). Then they choose three poems to memorize from their chosen anthology. The English anthology is compiled by Toronto-based Damian Rogers, the French by Pierre Nepveu in Montreal; both are published poets. There is a wide variety of poems for them to choose, American, British and Canadian, from across centuries. They must choose at least one from before the 20th century. Then they are coached in memorization and performance by their high-school teachers, and they send in videos to the national judges. Thirty-nine finalists have been chosen. The final gala is a gripping affair, with an audience of mesmerized adults that usually includes a number of hotshots. (Last year's event was attended by former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson.) The judges for this year's English-language event are Fiona Reid, Lynn Crosbie and Kevin Connolly (an actor and two poets). The level of performance and expression and general self-assurance is so high one might think one was watching professional actors.

The whole thing is the brainchild of Scott Griffin, the Canadian industrialist who also created the Griffin Poetry Prize. He was inspired in part by a similar contest in the United States, started by the magazine Poetry, called Poetry Out Loud. Griffin was good at memorizing poetry himself as a child, and found it helped him with public speaking and self-confidence. He has said, "The poem, and the emotional response it evokes, stay with you, always, like a companion. You not only know the poem better but where it has sprung from."

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Anyone who has memorized a poem knows that the process enables you to understand that poem better. Poets get very poetic when they describe the importance of memorization. Brad Leithauser, writing earlier this year in The New Yorker, wrote, "Memorized poems are a sort of larder, laid up against the hungers of an extended period of solitude."

But even experts' language gets a little, well, unscientific when they try to explain exactly how this new understanding takes place or in what it consists. Science has not proven that the exercise makes your brain better at anything other than memorizing poetry. Jim Holt, writing in The New York Times, said of memorization, "You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem … and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words." Which is actually a very dense idea and hard in itself to explain.

Damian Rogers, the creative director of Poetry in Voice, and author of the collection Paper Radio, told me, "The act of reading aloud is the closest reading you can do. You take the poem into your body. Something physical happens. The rhythm takes on another meaning when it's in your mouth as opposed to on a page."

Interestingly, Rogers avoided including a lot of very long poems in the English-language selections. "I didn't want the emphasis to be on the feat of memorization itself," she says, "but on understanding the poem. I'm much more interested in the student memorizing a four-line sonnet that shows they appreciate the shifts in tone and choices of language than I am in having a student take on the longest poem in the anthology. It's more about developing a life-long relationship with these poems."

The finalists that will be competing here in three weeks are from all over the country, including one from the Yukon. I hope that some public excitement builds about this event, to further stimulate in high schools this interest in the infinitely complex expressive varieties of language.

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