The poem's the thing

Alexander Barnes' voice rises and falls among the squeals of children at play at the Lithia Park playground.

"the salt horizons and the Dublin hills,

the rivers, table mountains, Viking marshes

we thought we knew

had been made to shiver"

The poem is "Domestic Violence" by Eavan Boland and is one on three Barnes recited during a performance Saturday at the statewide Poetry Out Loud competition in Salem which earned him second place. The impromptu performance amid the playground din was delivered with confidence and subtle flair, a reflection of Barnes' recital in Salem where much more was on the line.

"I was a little nervous in the beginning, but it was a great experience," Barnes said.

Barnes was one of 5,500 students from 24 high schools across the state who took part in the Poetry Out Loud competition. Each school held its own competition to choose one student to send to Salem. Barnes won the AHS competition, earning an all-expenses-paid trip to the Salem event.

Though homeschooled, Barnes takes a few classes at Ashland High School and said he felt pressure to represent the school and Ashland well at the state level.

He had a lot of help preparing for Poetry Out Loud, and gave credit to his sister and mother, Suzanne Barnes, for helping him with some intense training. Training went far beyond simple memorization. Barnes put the poems under a microscope, trying to understand the poet's intent and meaning and then working out the best way to bring those out during his recital. He also put in extensive time watching recordings of previous competitions, gleaning tips on what the judges look for.

"He put hours of work into this," Suzanne Barnes said. "We were very proud. Alexander, when he puts his mind to something he does really fine work. This was a great experience — he's always going to remember this."

Barnes was also thankful to AHS senior Jane Eisenberg, who brought the Poetry Out Loud competition to AHS as part of her senior project. Ashland High School Librarian Bill Street also put in time with Barnes helping him prepare for Salem after he had won the AHS competition.

"He's a genius," Barnes said. "His help was extremely valuable."

At 15, the freshman was one of the youngest competitors, but he already had a strong base of experience from to draw. He has performed in many plays as a child actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is also a member of the AHS speech and debate team.

Barnes had, in fact, been doublebooked on Saturday. In the morning he had been competing in Eugene with the speech and debate team at a tournament to qualify for top honors in Southern Oregon. He knew he would have to leave early for the Salem competition, but while on the road North after his competition in Eugene, he got a call from the speech and debate captain informing him that he had done well enough that he would have had a chance to make it to final round if he'd stayed.

"It was a little disappointing that I had to leave, but I knew if I did well (in Eugene) I could do well at Poetry Out Loud," Barnes said.

His acting background may have helped Barnes feel comfortable speaking on stage in front of an audience, but the skill sets of acting and reciting poetry are very different, he said.

When acting, the actor is in the spotlight, interpreting the words, making choices on how to play the part the part and working with others on stage. While reciting poetry, it's the poem that's the star.

"With drama you are the focus," Barnes said. "With poetry, you are a conduit for what the poet is expressing. It's not you, it's the poem."

In addition to Eavan Boland's poem, Barnes recited William Shakespeare's "Sonnet No. 18" and "Detroit Tomorrow" by Philip Levine.

When the judges' notes votes were tallied, Barnes was named runner up and awarded $100. His performance also brings in $200 for the AHS library for poetry purchases.

The grand prize went to 16-year-old Brynn Tran of Lake Oswego, who took home $200, $500 for her school and a chance to compete in Washington, D.C. for a $20,000 grand prize April 25-27. As runner up, Barnes will go to Washington D.C. if Tran is unable.

After his success was publicized, Barnes received congratulatory letters from State Senator Alan Bates and Representative Peter Buckley.

Another high point of the experience was meeting Oregon Poet Laureate Lawson Inada, who was one of the judges.

"He was the nicest man," Barnes said. "He had something encouraging to say to every single kid."

Myles Murphy is an editor and reporter with the Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-482-3456 ext. 222 or

Share This Story