NEA Arts Magazine

By Heart or By Rote?

Washington State Poet Laureate Samuel Green on Poetry Out Loud

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Samuel Green and BreAnna Jones

Washington State Poet Laureate Samuel Green hands BreAnna Jones a participation certificate before the five contest finalists were announced. Jones went on to become the 2008 Washington State Poetry Out Loud champion. Photo by Serni Solidarios.

In December 2007, Washington native Samuel Green became the state's first poet laureate. The author of 10 poetry collections, he is also the longtime editor of Brooding Heron Press, which focuses on Washington poets. In the excerpt below, from a longer article, Green discusses his experience as a judge at Washington's Poetry Out Loud finals on March 1, 2008.

Recently, I was the accuracy judge for the Poetry Out Loud state finals here in Washington State. I was impressed right away with how at ease most of the students seemed to feel with the poems, and it seemed to me that it was an ease different than the mere confidence of knowing the material.

After the competition was over, the students answered candid questions from the audience. Several things stood out for me. Most of the students confessed, for example, that, before their involvement, they were not particularly drawn to poetry, but that they became more and more drawn to it in the process of sorting through poems on the official Web site looking for ones to use in their repertoire. All of them agreed that reading poetry had become an important part of their lives, and that they would likely continue reading it. One student talked about the notebook he'd just purchased at the airport, saying that he was encouraged to try his own hand at making something like he'd been reading.

What does it mean to have a poem by heart, instead of by rote? I think I was maybe seven or eight when I stumbled onto Yeats's "Lake Isle of Innisfree." I lived near a lake in which there was a small island. I'd dreamed over and over about living on that island by myself, and here was a poem imagining that life for me. That poem, when I took it into myself, felt different than the poems I'd learned before. I felt I understood the writer, just as much as the writer, I felt, understood me.

When I asked the state finalists whether they had chosen particular pieces because they thought they might be more appealing to judges, there was a quick and universal headshaking all down the line. They couldn't see any sense in trying to work that hard on a poem they didn't like. The ones they chose, finally, were ones that spoke to them, though those reasons varied. And, while the initial attraction was a little mysterious, as they opened themselves up to understanding how to best embody the poems, the poems opened up to them. It had been a surprise, they all agreed, but a deeply welcome one. All of the students recommended the competition to others. Sometimes, as we know, rote leads to heart.