Under the harsh glare of fluorescent lights, nine student orators battled for first place in this year’s Boylston Prize for Elocution final yesterday.
The finalists, who had been selected Wednesday from a pool of 16 Harvard undergraduate competitors, entertained the 30-member audience with performances that ranged from the works of Shakespeare and John Donne to the speech that British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave to the U.S. Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks. Other students selected works by contemporary poets Robert Lowell and Billy Collins.
At the end of an intense, hour-long recital, Bernbaum Professor of Literature Leo Damrosch, chair of the English department, awarded the $300 first-place prize to Maximillian M. Beach ’06, who recited two poems by Wallace Stevens. The $200 second place prize was captured by Meghan A. Day ’05 for her delivery of a piece from John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden.
The prizes are awarded “for the delivery of memorized selections from English, Greek or Latin literature,” not to exceed five minutes in length, according to the guidelines established by the English department.
“The hardest part was actually getting [into the competition],” said Beach, a government concentrator in Cabot House. “I learned about it from an advertisement in The Crimson two hours before the application was due. I didn’t have any real idea what I would perform until about 45 minutes before the deadline.”
Beach said Stevens was a natural choice after he read the senior thesis of Louisa H. Thomas ’04, who wrote on the poet. Thomas’ thesis inspired Beach to consider Stevens as one of his favorite poets.
Though the contestants are required to recite their selections from memory, many said that this was the smaller of the two challenges.
“The hardest part of reciting poetry is getting the right feeling and emphasis on the words. I don’t have any trouble memorizing,” said Beach.
In contrast to Beach’s hurried application, Day, an English concentrator who “loves etymology,” said that she had been looking forward to the competition since the beginning of the year.
“I thought this was such a cool idea,” Day said. “When I heard about this, I knew right away I wanted to perform something.”
Day said that “camaraderie” existed between the competitors.
“These performances were heartfelt and extremely well done,” she said. “There was no cutthroat competition here tonight.”
Following the event, Damrosch praised each of the contestants for the “quality of their delivery.”
Kayla Y. Rosen ’04 presented a passage from the Canterbury Tales, which she delivered in Middle English and dramatized with body language.
Jordan L. Hylden ’06 gave dramatic rendering of an excerpt from Donne, which he said the poet composed when he thought he was on his deathbed.