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Hearing daddy’s drumming in the rhythm of a poem

My guest this week on Poetry from Daily Life is Julie Clayton. I met Julie through Poetry Out Loud, a national arts education program that encourages the study of great poetry by offering free educational materials and a dynamic recitation competition for high school students nationwide. Julie was a state champion for Missouri in 2023. ~ David L. Harrison

Keep track of time

“Music is like poetry is like Shakespeare is like me,” I wrote in my dotted notebook while watching a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. I was on a field trip with my Humanities class and listened to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at UMSL’s Touhill Theater. I probably should have written more serious notes for my orchestral review, but I found myself too surprised by the movement of the music to care.

Growing up with a drummer for a father, recognizing rhythm became second nature to me. I learned how to find a rhythm by imagining my father drumming against the steering wheel as he drove me to school. He raised me on hard rock and heavy metal music, songs with drums and bass that you could feel in the speakers. To this day, I still prefer music with a sound that fills your body, that you want to blast out at a volume that houses down the street could hear.

As I got older, English classes at school began to focus less on chapter books and more on short poetic works – poems with a strong rhyme scheme and a clear message, easily understood by primary school students. However, my life really changed one day in sixth grade, when my teacher introduced us to a relatively short poem by Edgar Allan Poe entitled “Annabel Lee.” Until now, I had never read such a literary work, with a cold and gloomy mood that made me feel uncomfortable in the best way. To help the class better understand the story of the poem, our teacher had us read the poem aloud and then asked us what we thought it was about. Most students thought it was a simple love poem, with not much else going on beneath the surface. Unconvinced, our teacher recited the poem in an angrier and more vengeful tone. Suddenly the message clicked with the entire class: the pain and anger the speaker felt, and the delusions surrounding the story he had created about the death of his loved one. It was the first time I realized that the way a poem is pronounced can explain it clearly to the listener, without changing or ‘dumbing down’ the language.

This poem by Poe reminded me of the music I listened to so often: eerie, yet beautiful, and with a solid rhythm that supported the words of the story.

Fast forward five years, I was in my freshman year American Literature class when my teacher introduced our poetry unit with a lesson on reciting poetry. She also introduced us to a national high school program called “Poetry Out Loud,” which allows students to participate in recitation competitions. Although we did not have to enter the competition ourselves, the class did choose poems to memorize and recite for a grade, following POL guidelines.

Before this assignment, the art of reciting poetry was largely a mystery to me. My understanding of poetry consisted solely of reading and writing the works, not speaking them out loud. Then I remembered my previous lesson on “Annabel Lee,” and how a simple recitation completely changed the entire class’s understanding of the work. This memory inspired me to actually enter my school’s Poetry Out Loud competition, in which I came third. This was a bit disappointing, as I found myself quite passionate about practicing my poem and discovering its meaning. Fortunately, I did not let this setback diminish my newfound love for recitation.

The following year, after finding a beautiful poem called “The Oldest Living Thing in LA” by Larry Levis (which mixed both opossums, my favorite animal, and Los Angeles, my favorite city), I participated again in my high school’s Poetry Out. Loud competition.

Later that afternoon, just five minutes after the end of the school day, I received an email from one of my English teachers informing me that I had won my school’s competition. Needless to say, I was ecstatic for many reasons: I had never really been one to win competitions, and now I had won something I really cared about.

The next few months flew by in a flurry of finding new poems, annotating them, and rehearsing them ad nauseum to make sure I memorized them to the letter. I attribute much of the hard work I put in to my supportive school community, especially the English teachers who offered to help me practice.

Ultimately, after two nail-biting matches against numerous fellow students (with immense talent), I became both the St. Louis County Regional Champion and the Missouri State Champion for Poetry Out Loud. The entire experience I’ve had competing across the state and across the country has changed my life in ways I can’t even express. I have made so many new friends and am inspired by the shared passion for poetry between me and other students.

One moment that sticks out to me from these experiences was after the National Competition in Washington, DC, where the other state champions and I gathered in a small room to share some poems we had written ourselves. I was completely taken aback by the beauty of these poems, but couldn’t help but notice the difference between their poems and mine. While some poems consisted of beautiful images and stunning metaphors, mine seemed to find their power in the rhythm of the words and stanzas.

It was then that the influence of my upbringing really hit me: how I found meaning in poetry, not just through beautiful words, but also through the way they are said. Neither type of poetry is better than the other; in fact, a great poem needs both to succeed. But when I write poetry, I can read it back and find influences from the drum beats of my childhood. So in the future I will definitely continue tapping songs on the steering wheel of my car. This is how I keep track of my time.

Here’s a poem I wrote after I got home from the Poetry Out Loud National Competition in Washington, DC:

when I struggle,

when I’m hurt,

it is quiet

short

pickles

it doesn’t inspire

metaphors

nor beautiful images

no major events to suggest

the wings of a bird flutter

or cold wind whistles

it remains silent

inside

yet I am called to create

just the same.

my pain may not rhyme

in perfect verse scheme,

yet it makes sense

to me.

read this again,

Please,

See if you can find the pattern.

the feeling is there,

during the breaks

and commas

no encyclopedias,

no nice synonyms,

I don’t need them.

this is enough.