One of the presenters was 16-year-old Youssef Biaz of Auburn, Alabama who won the title of 2011 Poetry Out Loud National Champion at the National Finals held in Washington, D.C., on April 29. He read "Mrs. Krikorian" by Sharon Olds, a beautiful poem that pays tribute to one of those life-changing teachers who come into our lives. (Biaz appears 32 minutes into the video.) Here are the opening lines: "She saved me. When I arrived in 6th grade, / a known criminal, the new teacher / asked me to stay after school the first day, she said / I've heard about you."
I appreciate that President Obama honors the power of poetry, as he notes in his opening remarks:
"The power of poetry is that everyone experiences it differently. There are no rules for what makes a great poem; understanding it isn't just about metaphor or meter. Instead, a great poem is one that resonates with us, that challenges us and teaches us something about ourselves and the world we live in. As Rita Dove says, 'If poetry doesn't affect us on some level that cannot be explained in words, then the poem hasn't done its job.'
"For thousands of years, people have been drawn to poetry in a very personal way, including me... As a nation built on freedom of expression, poets have always played an important role in telling our American story. It was after the bombing of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 that a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key penned the poem that would become our national anthem. The Statue of Liberty has always welcomed 'the huddled masses yearning to be free.' Soldiers going off to fight in WW II were given books of poetry for comfort and inspiration.
"Whenever our nation has faced great tragedy, whether it was the loss of a civil rights leader, the crew of the space shuttle or the thousands of Americans who were lost on a clear September day, we turn to poetry when we can't quite find the right words to express what we're feeling. So tonight we continue that tradition by hearing from some of our greatest as well as some of our newest poets.
"Billy Collins calls poetry the oldest form of travel writing because it takes us places we can only imagine. So sit back, or on the edge of your chair, and enjoy the journey."
In this video, Collins reads two of my all-time favorite poems of his, "Forgetfulness" and
"The Lanyard." Collins makes us laugh and think and sigh as he holds up our lives in all their pain and poignancy.