YEATS ALOUD !!! by Colleen Bazdarich
(Poetry Ireland News, September/ October 2006)
The usually peaceful lobby of the National Library is brimming with people. Costumed revelers in early-Twentieth-century garb mingle over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres with some of Ireland’s best- known writers, broadcasters, and politicians, while latecomers try to squeeze through the bottleneck at the Library’s double doors. The combined effect is a buzz that rises above the Library’s white- washed Romanesque columns to echo off the domed ceiling. The RTE cameras are rolling, and as the talk dies down, the Yeats family is recognised among the throng and thanked for their contribution to this important event, the opening of Yeats: the Life and Works of William Butler Yeats, a comprehensive multimedia exhibition about Ireland’s most famous poet. At the same time, on a makeshift stage, a seventeen-year-old from Ursuline College, Sligo, smoothes her skirt and prepares to step into the spotlight. She’s here to recite from memory Yeat’s Broken Dreams, yet no one who listens to her superb performance would guess that Katherine Wade is aware at all of being under the scrutiny of such a high-profile audience. She stands poised above the throng, exquisitely expressing her lines: ‘Your beauty can but leave among us? Vague memories, nothing but memories…’
‘The most nerve-wracking experience of my life,’ Katherine admits later from her home in Sligo. ‘So many people looking at me- the Yeats family there, and Seamus Heaney and so many others.’ But Katherine has had lots of experience besting her nerves with a collected smile. Her place in the spotlight at the National Library opening was the culminating experience of her tenure as Overall and Senior Winner of the first Yeats Aloud Spoken Poetry competition, a project administered by the National Library and Poetry Ireland, which saw Katherine and the other finalists memorising and reciting up to six Yeats poems each. The event was initiated when Colette O'Flaherty contacted by Jane O’ Hanlon of Poerty Ireland in an effort to involve schools in the celebration of Yeats centenary and the opening of the exhibition. A ‘Spoken Poetry’ competition was subsequently decided on, and the response from teachers and students was remarkable. Nearly 800 entries were received from post primary schools representing almost every county in Ireland. A series of regional heats was set up, at which all competitors were required to recite ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ and one other Yeats poem of their choice. While the judges agreed that the overall quality of the performance was superb, only the very best students from each age group made it out of the regional qualifiers.
Eighty-five competitors then went on to the semi-finals, which took place at the National Library in Dublin a few weeks after the regionals. Each age group was given a different prescribed poem, and all students could choose one poem to recite- except, of course, for ‘The Song of the Wandering Aengus’, which judges and organizers had already had the privilege of hearing recited as many as two hundred times per day during the preliminary competition. Two semi-final sessions lasted through through the morning and early afternoon of May, 12, when students could be found draped along the massaging temples as they muttered ‘September 1913’ or ‘The Second Coming’ under their breath. And yet again, it was up to the judges to selected twenty-one students from among the selection of first-rate performances to go to the Finals that night.
Finalists had to recite one last prescribed poem based on their age
group and one more free choice poem. After another set of brilliant
but tense recitations including ‘Sailing to Byzantium’,
‘The Stare’s Nest By My Window’ and The White Birds’,
Carin Hunt of Wesley College, Dublin, was the chosen
as Junior Category Winner; Fiachra Fallon Verbruggen of De La Salle, Wicklow was Intermediate Winner; and Katherine the Senior
and Overall Winner. Each category winner received a cash prize and a
host of books, including a signed copy of The Names Upon the Harp, by
‘Yeats Aloud’ judge Marie Heaney, along
with a set of poetry collections and anthologies for their school library.
Katherine, who has won the 2005 Senior Yeats Cup Competition as well as a number of awards in Feis Sligeach and Sligo Feis Ceoil, believes her love of Yeats and her extensive research on the poems she recited helped her ewin the coveted prize. ‘When you really love the poems, when you really understand them, the recitation is easy.’ She says. While not all students shared Katharine’s enthusiasm for Yeats’ poetry - one Junior Competitor was overheard at the Dublin regional event telling an event organiser, ’I don’t know who this Yeats fella is, I’m just in it for the money' - the winners, one and all, share her love of poetry and performance. Fiachra has been studying speech and drama since he was four years old and has acted in a number of theatre productions including Fame and The Glass Menagerie. Since getting involved in the competition he has become a voracious reader of Yeats’ poetry and names ‘The Man and the Echo’ as his favourite. Similarly precocious, Junior Catagory winner Carin has been involved in a number of recitation competitions including Poetry Aloud; she cites 'When You Are Old' as her favourite Yeats poem.
Special thanks got to all who helped make
Yeats Aloud’ such a phenomenal success. Aongus O’
hAonghusa, Colette O’ Flaherty, Ciara McDonnell and Eimear
Nelson form the National Library; all Poetry Ireland staff
along with PI intern Orla Linane; the preliminary judges
(unfortunately too numerous to mention in a limited amount of space);
the Semi-Final judges, Peter Sirr, Catherine Phil Mac Carthy
and Joanna Finnegan; and the three superb Final judges, who
had the hardest job by far, Joseph Woods, Niall MacMonagle and
Like many competitions of this kind, Yeats Aloud presented a Herculean job for all these judges, who had the unfortunate task of leaving many enthusiastic and talented students disappointed. But as regional judges Eilís Ní Dhuibhne eloquently pointed out, each student left with a gift: ‘Whatever happens in your life, you’ll have two Yeats poems that you know by heart. Those poems will stay with you forever.’ And there’s further good news for students left wanting more: the overwhelming response to the inaugural event has secured Poetry aloud a place on next year’s poetry calendar. Those interested should keep an eye on the News and Education sections of the Poetry Ireland website at www.poetryireland.ie, where dates and further information will be posted in due course.
Colleen Bazdarich is a Californian native who can’t seem to stay away from Ireland. Before completing an MFA in Poetry Writing from San Francisco State University, she was a reporter for Time Inc.