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Story Last modified at 1:34 p.m. on Thursday, February 3, 2011

Powerful poets

Alaska Star


Eagle River High students Mason Bennett (left) and Johnathan Sanders took first and second, respectively, in the school's Poetry Out Loud Recitation Contest Jan. 25. The two will compete at the regional level at 5 p.m. Feb. 9 at The Sidney Laurence Theatre in Anchorage. If they win, they could advance to the national championship in Wasgington, D.C.
Star photo by Melissa DeVaughn

Showing a mental fortitude that would bring the hardiest of souls to their knees, nine Eagle River High School students stood in front of a crowd of about 20 people Jan. 25 and recited poems.

When they stammered or missed a line, they didn't crumble with embarrassment, but forged ahead, pink-cheeked but determined. When they stood in awkward silence, forgetting entire stanzas, they didn't budge from their positions in front of their parents, peers and teachers.

"I don't know how they do it," said superintendent Carol Comeau, who served as one of the judges of the event. "I'd run out of the room crying."

There were no tears, though, as the small but talented group of English students did their best to breathe life into such classic poetry as Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," Edgar Allen Poe's "A Dream Within a Dream" and William Blake's "The Tiger."

Their efforts were rated by a panel of judges, who listened not only to the accuracy of the words, but the cadence and rhythm of the students' delivery, their dramatic presentation and their emotional grasp of the topic.

"It's just amazing because the students are like doppelgangers," said English teacher Clinton Holloway, who helped organize the event along with the other English teachers at the school. "They may seem shy and quiet in school and then they get up there and surprise you."

Take Alexa Heald, for example. Before the competition began, the freshman quarantined herself in a corner of the library, where the reference books lined the walls on two sides. Pacing back and forth, she quietly recited the poem to herself, practicing the lines from memory, glancing every now and then at her notes. Her short dark hair was pulled back on the side with a barrette and she was dressed smartly in black dress pants and a beige jacket.

Walking up in front of the spectators, she looked so shy and vulnerable.

Then she began to speak.

Her voice resonated, and her hand gestures complemented the words to her poems – "Light Shining out of Darkness," by William Cowper and "Early Affection," by George Moses Horton. Her voice rose, and fell, appropriately, and she seemed moved by the poems' words, as if hearing them for the first time.

"I told her, 'You're just a freshman. Wait until you get to be a senior.' Wow," Comeau said.

The Tuesday-night event is part of the national Poetry Out Loud Recitation Contest. Finalists in the local event move on to regionals, Holloway, said, where they have the chance to compete for a trip to Washington, D.C. and the national competition.

Poetry slams have created the recitation movement, Holloway added, and students are becoming more inspired to perform, as well as recite, some of the world's most well-loved poetry.

"I've judged an event like this once before and I remember I just loved it," Comeau said. "I love to see young people do different things, and I'm really pleasantly surprised to see so many boys here. "

In the end, the boys ruled, taking the first- and second- place awards for their recitations.

Mason Bennett won after nearly flawless renditions of "It Couldn't Be Done," by Edgar Guest and "The Children's Hour," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

"I owe it all to my mom – she practiced with me a lot and told me about voice articulation," Bennett said. "She's the one that got me into acting, too."

Johnathan Sanders came in a close second with his recitations of "The Darkling Thrush" and "Silence."

With a smile, he revealed his secret to success when on stage: "The audience doesn't know you messed up," he said. "If you skip a word or mix something up, just don't let on that it was a mistake and they won't get it."

Bennett agreed: "If you retreat and back up and repeat the line again, it's obvious. Just don't let them know."

The two will compete in the regional competition 5 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Sidney Laurence Theatre in Anchorage.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, February 3, 2011.