First Virtual Poetry Out Loud


Source: David Marshall,

Ruth Shiferaw (I) stuns the judges performing “The Light The Dead See” by Frank Stanford.

Although this year is unlike any ever before, the Boston Latin School English department has continued to carry out their various public speaking events. During the Friday Flex period on January 22, some of the best speakers at BLS competed in the school-level Poetry Out Loud competition, hoping to advance to the regional semi-finals. Similar to Public Declamation, high school students take part in Poetry Out Loud to gain oration skills and self-confidence.

Head of the English department and competition advisor Ms. Susan Moran says, “The opportunity to develop skill addressing an audience has to be beneficial. It’s hard to think of any field students might go into where there isn’t an advantage to being a comfortable, confident speaker in a public space.”

Poetry Out Loud provides students with the opportunity to not only gain public speaking skills but also to compete on a state and nation-wide level. Winners of higher-level competitions are awarded scholarships and other prizes, making the program very competitive. Ms. Moran reflects on the value of memorizing literature: “There’s an inherent value in having beautiful literature memorized — we used to call it having it to heart — it’s like having really beautiful mental furniture to sit on; there’s a place you can go in your brain and have something really lovely to visit.”

Contestants are not just judged based on memorization. The judges consider many other components, such as articulation and evidence of understanding. They score these elements on a scale of one to six, one being weak and six outstanding. Judges then add up these points along with an additional score for memorization to determine the result.

Usually, the competition takes place in the Seevak Room, where other students can watch. This year, however, performers gathered in a Zoom meeting with judges and various members of the English department. Due to Zoom participant limitations, this year was not open to student viewers.

Ms. Moran says, “This year is certainly very different for this competition; it’s always a fairly formal in-person event […] It’s a very nice special occasion, and we sort of lose that in the Zoom environment.”

Still, expectations remained high. For the 2021 competition, performers recited two poems, one 25 lines or shorter and the other written before the 20th century. Even with these strict guidelines, speakers such as Jack Trapanick (II) and Elizabeth Choi (III), who tied for second place, excelled.

After hearing the seven speakers recite their poems, the judges decided that Ruth Shiferaw (I) would represent BLS at the regional semi-finals. Shiferaw recited “The Chimney Sweeper: When My Mother Died I Was Very Young” by William Blake and “How I Discovered Poetry” by Marilyn Nelson. During both recitations, she showed powerful emotion both through tone and gestures. Shiferaw will perform at the regional semi-finals sponsored by the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston on March 6, 7 and 8 on a virtual platform.