By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — When Caleb Smith-Hastings performed his final poem — “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” by Wilfred Owen — at the National Endowment for the Arts’ Poetry Out Loud Competition in Montpelier last week, he made a last minute staging decision: At a particularly dramatic moment in the poem he turned to the judges, who were lined up to his side, and yelled the words directly at them.
They all jumped in their seats.
With that performance the Middlebury Union High School junior earned the title of Vermont State Champion.
At the end of April, Smith-Hastings will head to Washington, D.C., to vie for the national Poetry Out Loud title and a portion of the $50,000 in scholarships and school prizes. For his win in Montpelier, Smith-Hastings received a $200 prize and a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books for MUHS.
This was Smith-Hastings’ second time performing in the Poetry Out Loud competition; last year, he took second place. The program has been expanding in Vermont recently and this year contestants from 20 Vermont high schools participated. Smith-Hastings also noted there were more male participants this year.
“Last year there were two, this year there were three,” he said.
Last week’s competition, which was held at the Pavilion Auditorium in Montpelier, unfolded in three rounds. For each of those rounds Smith-Hastings performed a different poem.
Right away he decided to make the Owen poem his finale. A graphic and angry piece written during the First World War, “Dulce Et Decorum Est” was a little too unsettling to work as a good opener.
“I didn’t want to kill the audience and then have to bring them back to life,” he said.
So he began with “Beat! Beat! Drums!” another war poem by Walt Whitman. By the second round, he turned the intensity level down a notch with “How I Discovered Poetry,” by Marilyn Nelson.
He finished up by “slamming them into a brick wall with ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est,’” Smith-Hastings said.
Rachel Stacey, an Otter Valley Union High School senior who represented the Brandon school in its first appearance at the competition this year, was eliminated after the first round. She never got to perform the Owen poem that both she and Smith-Hastings had prepared.
Smith-Hastings said he was surprised she didn’t make it farther; he had heard through the grapevine she would be a formidable opponent.
While Smith-Hastings belted out the lines of his final poem, he could see Stacey in the audience, he said, mouthing the words along with him.
For the national finals, the MUHS junior will select three different poems to recite. For the sake of representing Vermont, he’s thinking he might do a poem by Robert Frost.
When asked how it feels to have won the state poetry competition, Smith-Hastings beamed.
“It feels good,” he said. “All the football players get their pictures on the wall for things like an almost undefeated season. Everyone says poetry isn’t going to get you anywhere. But now I’m, like, I’m the state champ. What do you think about that?”