2007-2008 IATE Poetry Contest Winners

Here's a list of recipients of Special Merit awards, their schools, and their nominating teachers. Winning poems can be viewed by clicking the students' names.

  • Ade Ajanaku“Listen to the Rain” / Sixth Grade / Teacher, Cyn Koukos / Lycèe Francais de Chicago ( Chicago, IL)
  • Amber Davis“Megan” / Ninth Grade / Teacher, Lee Roll / Oakland High School ( Oakland, IL)
  • Nora Gabor“Electric Love” / Tenth Grade / Teacher, Elizabeth Hartley / Evanston Township High School ( Evanston, IL)
  • Jimmy Harper“Ten” / Eighth Grade / Teacher, Cyn Koukos / Lycèe de Francais de Chicago ( Chicago, IL)
  • Anna Krueger“Snake Skin” / Twelfth Grade / Teacher, Kate Sullivan / Lyons Township High School ( LaGrange, IL)

Melody as Meaning: The Poem as Song and Lament

The young understand in their bones what we old folks too often forget: A poem is a musical thing, songlike in voice, melodic in chiming lines, rhythmic in thumping metrical beat. Faced with the intoxicating whimsy of, say,

Jack Sprat could eat no fat,

his wife could eat no lean,

and so between them both, you see, they licked the platter clean,

the young dance as much as speak the lines. None ponders the Sprats' odd eating habits; none frets over the Mrs.'s fate given her questionable diet. None resolves to eat everything on her/his plate tonight because people are starving all over the world. The musical throb and chiming rhymes are sufficient in themselves, satisfying in ways both mysterious and redemptive. We old folks need Edward Sapir to remind us, "Poetry everywhere is inseparable in its origins from the singing voice and the measure of the dance."

One might well argue contemporary music has both (a) contributed to poetry's cultural decline and (b) catalyzed its resurgence among American youth. The first case is easy enough to make. Along with the novel and the advent of film drama, popular music wrested the public's attention away from poetry as the pinnacle of aesthetic expression our grandparents considered it to be. In recordings and live performances, music offers its audience a rich blend of sound and sense that elevates to levels of the ecstatic, word and note the means of ascension and revelation-not to mention the source of seemingly boundless pleasure. Poems, or perhaps better, the wrong poems, can't compete with this multivalent appeal to the senses.

Yes, one achieves similar release listening to classical music, but most young folks regard the classics with the same scrunched-faced derision they offer broccoli or homework. So, how has popular music worked its surprising magic, as I contend, fueling poetry's supercharged engine among young people? Two things account for resurgent interest in poetry among youth: technological innovation and musical evolution. The recent flurry of audio and video personal devices has given young people a way to see and hear what they want when they want. No doubt the iPod and iPhone, the emergence of YouTube, and the Internet's various social ­networking sites have afforded young folks the means to inhabit a cultural locale awash with image and sound. And they can share among "friends," both real and digital, nearly everything they do, say, and see. The public square, once a physical site bound in both place and time, has given way to a digital public commons. Music has benefited from and aided this evolution, especially hip-hop and rap, which have, despite their sometimes questionable subject matter, suc­ceeded in reigniting young folks' devotion to rhyme and narrative. A story well told in image and chiming language, they're rediscovering, is both memorable and pleasing.

If anything, young people are increasingly invested in poetic expression that bridges the chasm between stage and page. Their experimentation with spoken-word and perfor­mance poetry is connecting poetry with its ancient origins. Poetry is, at root, an oral and performative art. Though I love the company of a book, I also recognize the book was once the iPod of its generation. The book has served us well for several hundred years, and it will continue to do so in one form or another. But for poetry to flourish, not merely survive, it must embrace new modes of bringing together the poem and its reader or listener. Even the middle-aged postmaster of my small village of Dunlap owns an iPod, and hers contains not only songs but also poems-audio poems she's downloaded to listen to when driving to and from work. This is why I edited the audio CD poetry anthology Bread & Steel, a gath­ering of 24 Illinois poets reading from their works (http:// www.bradley.edu/ poet/breadandsteel). My hope is teachers will bring Bread & Steel into the classroom, thus embracing poetry's oral appeals and thereby persuading students that poetry's always hip.

It's no wonder we see evidence of these changes in our students' poems. Poems express the world young folks see and daily move through. This year's IATE first-place winners exhibit a surprisingly lush awareness of the musical phrase. A few of these poems, those earning my citation as Poems of Special Merit, both employ melodic lines and reveal the poets' sensitivity to music itself, as well as to the means through which music reaches many of us today-via the iPod. For one poet, the rain itself plays a "Street beat," a "hip-hop drip drop." Another sings a sprightly tune to her iPod, her "little pocket deity." One ten year old worships an iPhone he comes across on a running path, tempted by reverence and "true wanting." He thanks his good fortune and ponders taking the device home with him, feeling within himself "a slight tremble" that sets his morals against the culture's acquisitive greed. Still another describes her encounter with the punk musical scene, detailing the exotic allure of its "salty communal ocean." The poet's deft touch is itself musical, offering up lines rich with "'Blitzkrieg Bop' and "fragile vinyl" that one wants to trill over and over, just for the fun of it. Lest we become dizzy on this swirling carnival ride, we come to one young poet's tribute to a fallen sibling, a poem rendered in striking detail of refrigerator alphabet letters, sippy cups, and skin the color of "creamer in Dad's coffee." Such a poem reminds us poems lament as well as celebrate. All poems are acts of remembrance against the rush of time and forgetfulness. What a poem sings stays with us, both memorial and song. 

- Kevin Stein, Illinois Poet Laureate