Derek Walcott's White Egrets was named the winner of the 2011 T.S. Eliot Prize at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on Jan. 23. A recent article in the online UK journal The Literateur titled "Report: 2011 T.S. Eliot Prize" described the event as if it was a rock concert for poets:
"Walt Whitman understood that in order 'to have great poets, there must be great audiences.' There is a sense, then, that when two thousand people fill the Royal Festival Hall for a poetry reading on a Sunday evening in late January, a sort of reverse could also be said to be true: great audiences require great poets. . . . Poetry books may not sell particularly well today, but it would seem from the swelling crowds clutching tickets, that the way back is in performance."
Have you been to an exceptional poetry reading or performance recently? Looking back, do you remember the first reading you attended or the best poetry reading you ever attended?
I love to hear stories about students who are learning to perform poetry. Today at Southwest Minnesota State University, we had a visit day for prospective students, and I met a high school senior interested in creative writing. She had performed several poems by Billy Collins ("Forgetfulness," "Winter Syntax") as part of her speech team last fall and made it to Iowa's state competition.
Another opportunity for high school students interested in performing poetry is the Poetry Out Loud contest sponsored by the National Endowment of the Arts, in which students compete by performing poems by the finest poets on a local, regional and national stage.
These are signs of hope to me, hope that poetry lives, even today, even in our media-saturated American culture. Poetry is a force that brings us together, helps to dissolve the illusion that we are separate. Voices quaking, my students send their words out into the world, read their poems in class, in the Whitman Room, at open mics, at senior portfolio readings. Here in southwest Minnesota at SMSU, lecture halls fill to capacity with audiences hungry for the spoken word, poems that sing with precision, truth, humor and humanity.