Poetry: Avoiding the "I don't get it..."

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Some poetry simply doesn't translate to Oral Interpretation competition. By nature, poetry is meant to be read on paper, not read aloud. And it's a sad fact, but just because you love a poem doesn't mean everyone else will love it.

Here are a few ways to make sure the poems you choose will be understood and appreciated by your audience:

1. Look for poems with structure, and/or for free verse poems with a conversational tone or a pattern your audience will be able to follow. One of my favorite poets is e.e. cummings, but many of his poems (with a few exceptions) are a little bit too difficult for people to "get" after hearing only once because much of his work is visual, meaning you have to see it on the page to fully grasp its meaning.

2. Don't get too philosophical. You only have a few minutes to make an impression on your judge and the rest of your audience, and if your poem requires a lot of analysis on the part of the listener, you're not going to do well. Try to keep your subjects sensible -- look for things that are interesting, but somewhat simple to understand and identify with. I'm all for deep poetry, but an O.I. round is not the place to share your interest in theories about death, black holes or binary code. Your job is not to impress your judge with a complex subject; it is to keep the focus on your acting. How can they do that if they're stuck trying to figure out what the heck you're talking about?

3. Avoid rhyme when possible. One of the requirements of O.I. is that when you're performing poetry, you are supposed to take it out of rhyme and rhythm. The best way to accomplish this is to choose a poem that doesn't rhyme at all. Also, poems like "The Raven," which are repetitious in terms of rhyme scheme, can be annoying to hear. Nobody likes a broken record.

4. Keep your subjects/authors varied. If you choose a long poem, make sure it has a good pace that doesn't drag on or get too complicated or metaphorical. If you have a program of pieces, choose several pieces by different authors on the same subject or choose poems by one author that cover completely different subjects.

5. Avoid the classics. There's no need to impress your judge with your knowledge of Longfellow and Thoreau. Choose something they -- and you -- will be able to understand, relate to, and enjoy. If you are absolutely in love with classic poetry, consider using a selection from one of your favorite poets as part of a larger program of more modern pieces. You could probably get away with a full program by Emily Dickinson or another poet with pieces that tend to be shorter in length. As long as you keep the pace going, you should be fine.

By following these guidelines, you'll ensure that your audience will be able to comprehend your poem and pay attention to what's really important: your performance.

What's your stance on poems with humor? Do you think they can be competitive if rounded with substance?

"How can they do that if they're stuck trying to figure out what the heck you're talking about?"

Exactly. There is a time and place for deep, reflective, and complicated poetry that requires time to interpret. Remember the audience when selecting a piece!

While I agree that you should always keep the audience in mind when choosing which peices to perform, it should also be something that you are passionate about. Pick a varied piece that you truly in enjoy, one that gives you some room for charaters maybe. And humor can have a place if it still has a meaningful message and you have a purpose to use it. But you would have to be more careful with humor.

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