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How to Conduct a Poetry Recitation

Recently my favorite professor from graduate school invited me to attend her eighteenth-century poetry class. During the class, she called on different students to read the poetry aloud. I was horrified by what I heard. These graduate students could not read poetry—at all! They stumbled over words, read in a sing-song voice, paused at the end of lines, and had no sense of the meter or meaning of the poem. My 10 year old reads poetry better than these grad students. She better: we practice reciting poetry every day.

Why poetry?

There is no denying that reading poetry has fallen out of favor. Once the most highly esteemed of the literary arts, poetry is now an often neglected and even scoffed at art form. Why should anyone spend valuable teaching time reading poetry?

First, poetry is beautiful and meaningful. That should be reason enough for study. But for those who require more practical considerations, I offer the following. Early and generous exposure to poetry creates a love of poetry. This love, combined with familiarity of poetic forms, allows a student to later enjoy and understand deeper poetic works—works that are the foundation of Western Civilization: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, to name just a few. Students who have spent years reading even nursery rhymes and silly poems for children will easily overcome the intimidation normally associated with reading more difficult works of poetry.

Second, in addition to improving a student’s ability to read great works, reciting poetry will also improve a student’s ability to write. When a poet writes a poem, he must conform to specific rules of meter and rhyme. As a result, poets are forced to use a variety of unusual vocabulary and sophisticated grammatical constructions. A reader of poetry will be exposed to advanced vocabulary and grammar that can be added to the student’s “writing toolbox.” Later when the student begins to write, he will have a storehouse full of rich words, phrases, metaphors, and other figures of speech at his fingertips—an invaluable aid to good writing.

Why recite?

Poetry is not meant to be read silently to oneself. Poetry is meant to be heard. Poets painstakingly choose words that not only have specific meaning, but specific sound: combinations of words that must be read slowly or combinations that must be read quickly; rhyme schemes that underscore the meaning of the poem; even phrases that satirically undercut the poem by the way they sound.

The best way to understand poetry is to read it out loud. This requires careful reading and attention to meter and punctuation. Students must be very mindful of punctuation in order to read a poem properly. Resisting the temptation to pause at the end of a line, students must pause only when the punctuation tells them to.

Reciting poetry aloud is also a great exercise in public speaking and elocution—a skill that most people are sadly lacking. Learning to speak clearly and beautifully in public is an invaluable skill.

How to recite poetry?

1. Model the poetry recitation for your students. Stand and read the poem exactly as you expect them to.

2. Maintain good posture and eye contact. My children stand up straight and look directly at me—their audience. There is no slouching, no rocking from side to side, no leaning on a table or podium, and no staring at the floor or ceiling. Their hands are lying naturally at their sides or holding their poetry books, but never in their pockets!

3. Start by reciting the name of the poem and the poet and be careful to recite at a natural, relaxed speed. The temptation in reciting is to read too fast. Read a poem out loud slower than you think you need to. Be sure to pause between reading the title of the poem and beginning the first line.

4. Enunciate clearly, pronouncing each word clearly and distinctly. Further, try to read as if you understand the poem. A happy or silly poem requires a much different reading style than a sad or tragic poem.

5. Avoid reading the poem in a sing-song manner. As soon as I hear my children slipping into a sing-song rhythm, I stop the recitation and have them begin again. The reading should sound natural, as if you are reading prose.

6. Do not pause at the end of a line of poetry! Pausing creates a choppy effect that destroys the sense of the poem. Read the poem a complete sentence at a time, pausing only when there is some punctuation, like prose reading, only slower.

7. Pronounce words correctly. Poetry regularly includes advanced vocabulary. Look up in a dictionary how to pronounce any unfamiliar words. Stumbling over words destroys both the beauty and the meaning of the poem.

8. Have fun! Remember, oral recitation of poetry was once considered public entertainment.

9 comments:

Teri said...

This was very helpful, Angelina.

Tim said...

Agree on all points. What's worse, most modern American readings are done in the weird over-emphasized style of a beatnik. Most young people with an interest in spoken verse will be put off by it.

For greatness in reading, I'd offer the following as a model of the form (by the anonymous SpokenVerse, who has quite a collection online).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PQdgV1p-MI

Amy said...

Thank you - I'm not much of a poetry person, and I'd like myself AND my children to enjoy poetry. I didn't know the proper way to read poetry before, but I just tried your advice and it made the poem much better!

roohi said...

Thank you, Very Informative. Can you give tips to teach poem recitation to 4 yr old nursery kid for competition.

pooja said...

Thank you for such informative tips.. wish I had more time to read your blog.. will do for sure.

My 6 year old has a poetry competition on 30 Novemeber, so I needed to improve her pronounciation and style.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this information...

liz said...

thank u for that very inspiring tips.. God bless

Demetria @ Christian Homeschool Moms said...

Great tips! This will be useful to us as we begin a more Charlotte Mason approach this year.

mg468 said...

This was helpful and helped me recite my poem!