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'The Great American Think-off': Local poet prepares for contest

Marsh Muirhead practices at home for his debate tonight at the Great American Think-off. Muirhead will defend the question, "Does poetry really matter?" Pioneer Photo/ Patt Rall

One way to prepare for a debate on "Why Poetry Matters" is to invite friends over to munch on cheese, crackers and fresh fruit, and enjoy some red wine while you read your essay aloud for the first time to an audience.

An audience should be eager to help you prepare your talk, as well as ask questions emanating from an essay you wrote months ago to America's popular amateur Philosophy contest, "The Great American Think-off." Useful questions are like, "How does poetry connect with the "unanswered questions in our lives?" or "How old do you have to be before poetry matters?"

That was the track Marsh Muirhead chose last Wednesday at his home on the Mississippi River, a place that welcomes literati throughout the year for poetry readings, intense conversations and debates.

"I pace myself. For example, to prepare myself for tonight, I smoked a cigar, walked around outside and answered questions posed by the trees," said Muirhead. "That's how I got myself energized today."

Muirhead has been preparing for tonight's debate at the Great American Think-off in New York Mills, Minn., for weeks after being notified in April that he was picked as one of four finalists from across the country to defend the premise that poetry does matter. He, along with Doug Wilhide of Minneapolis, will argue the pros, while Bob Levine of New York City and Mahmood Tabaoor, an engineer from Rochester, Mich., will argue the cons.

The event will begin at 7 p.m. at the James Mann Performing Arts Center located in the school complex with either side starting the debate at the flip of a coin. The two people on each side of the argument will read their essays to the judges who will then ask them questions based on their essays. Each contestant will have up to two minutes to answer judges' question and their opponents will each have one minute to comment. All contestants will be asked a total of three questions. Once completed, the audience will then choose one winner from each side (pro and con) by marking and tearing a ballot from their programs. There will be a long intermission and reception while the ballots are tabulated and the winners announced. The one pro and con winner will then debate each other and answer questions, some from the audience, and then will be given two minutes to sum up their arguments.

"I haven't written my final argument yet," said Muirhead. "I will be taking notes during the process and then wing it. I have my answers to potential questions in groups (of papers)."

Muirhead said he was attracted to poetry at a young age, perhaps because his mother read poetry aloud to her children at their home in Sauk Centre, Minn. That begs the question: Do children read poetry because they are exposed to it at an early age, or is the love of reading imprinted one's genetic code? Does one, as Muirhead earlier hinted, live as a nascent poet, studying the verses of others, before venturing forth in one's own write? It would appear he believes that the earliest humans conceived and taught each other using the poetry of that time, no matter how crude or elementary. Like the drawings on the walls of caves, stories are passed down by storytellers for generations to teach, heal and instruct.

Or, as Muirhead agreed with one questioner, is poetry ambiguous in nature? Does that ambiguity lead the reader to greater insight about the mysteries of life, love and spiritual identity? To answer to that query, and also the question of how old one must be before poetry matters, Muirhead looks to the best known children's poet of America, Theodor Geisel. What adult does not know the poetry of Dr. Seuss, as most of us have been introduced to the "Cat in the Hat," "Green Eggs and Ham" and "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and the life lessons therein? As in the book, "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" - a perennial graduation gift - "Be who you are and what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."