is a writer in Philadelphia
My fourth-grade teacher made us memorize "If" by Rudyard Kipling - all four rhymed verses, beginning, "If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you."
At 9, I envisioned the line literally: guillotined heads rolling like so many marbles on the floor. At 54, I'm not fond of the poem and its stiff-upper-lip advice. But it's deeply wedged in my brain, and when I run long distances, I can't help recalling the final verse, "If you can fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds' worth of distance run," as I pant across the finish line.
As a teaching artist and occasional judge in the national Poetry Out Loud program, I've sometimes shared that story with students. "Be careful what you memorize," I tell them. "You may be stuck with this poem for the rest of your life."
In Poetry Out Loud, created in 2005 by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Poetry Foundation, high school students from Boston to Bellingham select, analyze, learn, and perform classic and contemporary poems, from the iambic pentameters of Shakespeare to the sinuous free verse of Rita Dove.
Like the National Spelling Bee, Poetry Out Loud has classroom contests that amp up to schoolwide, regional, and state competitions. The state winners descend on Washington, D.C., each spring - an expenses-paid trip for each student and an adult chaperone. The national champion leaves with a $20,000 prize.
I've worked with the New Jersey Poetry Out Loud program for 12 years, coaching kids in all kinds of settings - academic magnet schools and alternative, vo-tech, and home-school programs. Sure, some kids grouse their way through, browsing the online anthology of 900 poems, then shambling onstage for a gutless rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
But more often, this is what happens: The words get under their skin. A teenager finds something in a 500-year-old sonnet that twangs a chord of heartbreak, rage, or loneliness. They notice ironies and allusions. They breathe where the poet breathed. They slip out of their own self-conscious skin and into someone else's.
I remember one boy, an aspiring thug at Woodstown High School who latched onto a World War I poem by Rupert Brooke. Suddenly, he wanted to win this poetry thing. Teachers said his attitude shifted. He quit cutting class and started turning in homework.
I recall a girl at Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden who picked over each line of Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" until her eyes reddened and she told me that was just how it felt to be female, to be Latina, to smile even when she was shredded inside.
Poetry Out Loud contestants do more than memorize; they take poems to heart.
I saw it happen again last week, when 12 students competed in New Jersey's state finals. Each year, contestants seem to nudge the bar a little higher, selecting poems that are more challenging, more oblique.
The exceptional performers - and by state finals, they're all exceptional - find the emotional arc, whether they're performing May Swenson's staccato "Analysis of Baseball" or Gary Soto's ironic "Self-Inquiry before the Job Interview."
The Trump administration has already put the NEA on a hit list of programs it will try to ax (though the agency's budget amounts to a mere .012 percent of federal spending). Before Congress takes that vote, I hope its members amble up the street and listen to a few rounds of the Poetry Out Loud finals.
There, they will hear Amos Koffa, a senior at the Burlington County Institute of Technology, perform "Let the Light Enter," his pipe-thin arms rounding the air in anguish and longing. They will hear brown-skinned kids recite Yeats and Shelley while their white classmates conjure the words of Toi Derricotte and Jimmy Santiago Baca. They may hear a girl voice the swaggering verses of Allen Ginsberg, or a boy tenderly offer Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)."
They will glimpse America's future, brilliant and multihued: kids with last names like Sparacio and Sharif, Malik and Li, Sena and Diaz. Kids from rural Idaho and small-town Texas, from Florida and Maine. If they are listening, those lawmakers will feel indifference melt and borders - between old and young, male and female, black and white - blur until they become ridiculous.
I hope those elected officials tune in, come April, so they can hear the opposite of the Trumpery that twists through this bizarre political moment. That is, so they can hear truth - passionate, poetic, angry, tender - in all its voices.