A massive deluge of tears flooded the Listner Auditorium last night as William Farley accepted the first place award for the National Poetry Out Loud Contest. Tears streaming down his face, the national champion put down his trophy to embrace his emotional little brother -- and the misty-eyed audience completely lost it.
Scott Simon, the puckish host of NPR's Weekend Edition who played emcee for the night, as well as the seasoned literati who judged the competition, seemed to regard Farley and the other young competitors with an air of admiration.
"Students will find that never again in their lives will words soak as deep into their hearts and bones as they do now," he said.
Brows furrowed, hands quivering with emotion, voices rising to a forte, then falling to a whisper, the words did indeed seem to be bursting through from somewhere deep inside the young bodies. A number of poems were recited more than once during the evening, but stirred with new life with each recitation. Students internalized the same poem very differently and made it their own.
"It's a privilege to listen to such great live poetry ... and performed at this skill level!" said judge and theater great, Tyne Daley.
The contest, a partnership initiative of the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, encourages the study of poetry by offering educational materials and a slam poetry competition to high schools across the country.
Although the young poets were the stars of the event, Natalie Merchant gave them a good run for their money, with her stripped-down performance of songs adapted from the work of poets like Robert Graves and John Yeoman. She is due to release an album of music inspired by poetry this fall. Judging from the small sampling of the album, it's certain to be worth giving a listen, whether or not you're a fan of poetry. After a six-year hiatus, Merchant's voice is as strong and enchanting as ever.
It was Virginia local Farley, though, who ultimately brought the audience to tears when he won the title of National Poetry Out Loud champion with his recitation of "Danse Russe" by William Carlos Williams. Farley walked away with $20,000, a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books for Washington Lee High School, and the opportunity to recite a poem at May's rededication of the Lincoln Memorial.
The experience was transformative for both the emotional Farley and those who were lucky enough to see him perform.
In the spirit of the event, the words of Langston Hughes best captured the dynamics of the night. "As I learn from you, you learn from me, although you are older ... and more free."