Langston Ward, a senior at Mead High School, is the national Poetry Out Loud champion, rising to the top from hundreds of thousands of students who recited poetry on stages across the U.S.
Ward, 18, secured the win with a performance of “The Bad Old Days,” by Kenneth Rexroth. It was the third and final poem he performed in the competition that ended Tuesday night in Washington, D.C.
He said Rexroth’s poem contained a message he wanted to convey “about social justice, and justice in general” – “how people needed to hold on to what they had received in life and use it to make the world a better place.”
Recruited as a defensive end – his position on Mead’s football team – to play for Harvard University, Ward will head to Cambridge, Mass., next fall on a full academic scholarship. He’s thinking about working in politics.
“Whatever I do, I want to focus on helping people,” he said from an airport Wednesday morning in Washington, D.C. “That’s definitely why I chose (the poem).”
English teacher Dori Whitford introduced the poetry recitation program at Mead in 2007. Memorization provides “a great way for a kid to connect and really get to know a poem well and to analyze,” she said.
Ward was in Whitford’s freshman honors class, where, she said, he didn’t stand out much. “I have a lot of exceptional kids, and he was about 2 feet tall at the time,” she joked.
He’s grown, both to 6-foot-4 and into a scholar who’s able to convey an emotional connection with a poem, but also an intellectual understanding of its cultural context.
Watching the state competition, Whitford mentioned to another audience member she was there to watch Ward.
“He said, ‘Oh, is Langston the one that takes command of the entire auditorium as he walks in?’ And that was the parent of a girl that was participating,” Whitford said. “I mean, when you go listen to him in an auditorium, people don’t breathe.”
In this week’s competition, Ward was “just composed,” said his mother, Tracy Ellis-Ward, who accompanied him to the capital.
“He said, ‘Mom, I feel it,’” she said. “I think his competitive spirit really came out in an art form.”
Ward’s national championship comes with a $20,000 prize. He said he’ll save a lot of the money, invest part of it, give some to charity, buy an acoustic guitar and put some toward college expenses. Poetry Out Loud also will give Mead High School $500 to buy poetry books.
The National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation created Poetry Out Loud to encourage students to engage with literature. Students compete in their classrooms and schoolwide, with winners advancing to regional and state contests.
The nationwide program involved more than 375,000 students and about 2,000 high schools across the country. In Washington, more than 23,000 students from 76 schools participated this year, according to Washington State Arts Commission, which also helps put on the competition.
This week’s win represented Ward’s second appearance on the national stage. He took the state title in 2012, too, placing in the top nine nationally. While his competition this week was “formidable,” he said, his experience helped.
In addition to Rexroth’s poem, he performed the “The Gift” by Li-Young Lee and “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown” by Walt Whitman.
“I felt like I had more control over what I was doing on stage, maybe because I had been there before at that level,” Ward said. “But it’s mostly the poems, really. … They do most of the work for me.”