By Erin Beck
CHARLESTON – A Harrison County student, Morgan Sprouse of Bridgeport High School, won the statewide Poetry Out Loud competition in Charleston on Saturday.
The county was well-represented at the annual competition. Wesley Benson, a senior at Lincoln High School, made it to the semifinals on Friday, when students from more than 40 schools competed for a spot in the final ten.
Morgan Sprouse, a junior at Bridgeport High School, and Ashton Nardella, a senior at Notre Dame High School, made it from the semifinals to the finals on Saturday.
Poetry Out Loud is a national contest in which high school students memorize and recite poetry for an audience. The competition begins in schools, with the winners at each school advancing to the statewide competition. The winners from each state and territory then compete at the National Finals.
The West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Foundation sponsor the event annually in West Virginia.
Each student memorized and recited three poems. Sprouse selected “Mansplaining” by Jennifer Militello, “Ways of Talking” by Ha Jin, and “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
She also participated last year, but it was virtual. She had stood in front of a sheet her mom had taped over a window for a recording.
“I recited them for a camera which is nothing compared to doing it in front of an audience,” she said. “It makes me nervous, but once I get out there, it’s much better to have audience reaction.”
She enjoyed poetry before learning about the competition.
“I liked to read it,” she said. “And I have a couple of poetry Instagrams that I frequent, quite often.”
But now she has a new source of poetry material- the Poetry Out Loud website, she said.
Her mother, Jennifer Kniceley Sprouse, agreed this year was different. She said she could “feel the emotion in the room.”
“Our students from Harrison County were amazing,” she said. “All three of them and it was just – it’s a blessing to be here.”
Her husband, Bart Sprouse, doubted he could have memorized so many lines.
“The dedication is what stuck out to me,” he said.
Morgan said her mom encouraged her to recite “A Psalm of Life.” Her grandfather, William G. Kniceley, enjoyed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
She was hesitant when she saw the length of the nine-stanza poem, but she was glad she chose it.
“One of my favorite lines is ‘Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal,” Morgan said. “So that kind of sums up what the rest of the poem is saying, just keep going and do your best. And that is all you can do, and enjoy things.”
Jared St. Martin Brown, who teaches English and Theater at Bridgeport High School, said he didn’t have to help Morgan much, as she is very self-motivated.
“Morgan has a real talent for being able to convey the emotion in a piece, whether that’s in theater or in poetry,” he said. “She can really show that through facial expressions, through body language. And I think when you put that on stage with poetry, I think it’s a magic combination.”
Benson, of Lincoln High School, said his English teacher had approached him about participating.
“I was hesitant at first because I didn’t have much experience in poetry, but ultimately decided that it would be fun and get me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “Over the past couple of weeks, I learned a
lot of public speaking and performance skills while practicing my three poems.
I’m a performer and have been for years, so it was fun to add character to my poems. Even though I didn’t win, It was an honor to represent my school at the state capitol.”
Nardella, who said he’s “particular” with his poetry, enjoyed the exposure to different forms at the event.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “Got to meet some cool people, did well overall. I only wish I could’ve gone a lil’ further.”
He’d been preparing since summer, “and it paid off,” he said.
“And I’ll always remember how amazing it felt to place,” he said.
Ben Long, a former Notre Dame student and the 2021 state champion, gave remarks and performed. Long was one of nine students to advance through regional competitions and compete for the title of national champion.
West Virginia’s Poet Laureate Marc Harshman also spoke and performed. He was heartened to see many contestants and their families stick around Saturday despite the snow and not making it to the finals.
“Poetry Out Loud is such a gift to the state of West Virginia, unlike almost anything else I can think of,” he said, in an interview. “It promotes literature and learning. The students get excited about poetry. They learn or else relearn that poetry is not something to be afraid of but reflects everything about our lives as human beings. It nurtures the soul, if you will. There’s music in poetry. There’s humor. There’s seriousness. There’s comedy. There’s tragedy.”
Harshman said the kids had immersed themselves in poems “that countless poets from Shakespeare’s age to our own have sweat blood over to get just the right words, to say just the right thing about the state of their souls,” then reflect that emotion and experience for the audience.
The Poetry Out Loud competition, he said, is one thing that West Virginia gets right.
The 2022 Poetry Out Loud National Finals will take place virtually. All 55 state and jurisdictional finalists will participate in the national semifinals, which will stream May 1, with the top nine students advancing to the national finals, which will stream on June 5. Both the semifinals and finals will be streamed at arts.gov.
A total of $50,000 in awards and school/organizational stipends will be given at the Poetry Out Loud National Finals, including a $20,000 award for the National Champion, $10,000 for 2nd place, $5,000 for 3rd place, and $1,000 for 4th-9th places. The representing schools/organizations of each of the top nine finalists receive $500 for the purchase of poetry materials.
Each winner at the state level will receive $200. The state winner’s school/organization will receive $500 for poetry materials. One runner-up in each state will receive $100; their school/organization will receive $200 for the purchase of poetry materials.
A Psalm of Life
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.