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Bemidji man wins Great American Think-Off on side of poetry

For Marsh Muirhead, poetry certainly matters.

It was his arsenal of thought-provoking arguments, compiled mentally since his childhood, which led to the Bemidji man's victory at the 19th annual Great American Think-Off on June 11.

In front of a crowd at the New York Mills School auditorium, Muirhead debated in favor of poetry's merit in a competition judged by those present at the NY Mills Regional Cultural Center event.

Muirhead's case for poetry began with his argument that poetry is the "spiritual language shared by our one human family." His portrayal of poetry touched on its ability for humans to use language to bare more than just facts - to reach inside oneself and reveal something deeper. Often, he said, poetry is used to express emotions in times of great triumph or anguish. Either way, he said it's a practice that should be more wildly practiced in the United States.

Telling the tale of his childhood, he spoke of Psalms recited by his mother - lessons that have stuck with him throughout his life, impacting him all the while. He recalled his first experience of heartache, a time that inspired him to recite the words of Beatles' lyrics. He also delved into the historical relevance of poetry, dating back to the age of Shakespeare.

"No other poet has so dissected and revealed the human condition while at the same time pointing out how this is done," he said.

He also spoke of remembered speeches, including Martin Luther King Junior's famous "I have a dream." When later questioned whether such speeches qualify as poetry, he related back to the structure and cadence of the speech, which he said are similar to other published works of poetry.

First, his argument was sparred against Doug Wilhide of Minneapolis, who also argued in favor of poetry.

Wilhide spoke of poetry's ability to express one's innermost desires and passions - revealing the soul of the writer. Reflecting back on a summer college job laying bricks, he illustrated the importance of poetry in the lives of most people, including the middle age worker he worked with that summer.

"Poetry mattered to that brick layer," Wilhide said.

Mahmood Tabaddor, who successfully moved on to the final round after winning more votes than fellow "no" voter Bob Levine, agreed with Muirhood and Wilhide in one way: that poetry should be read by more. However, he said in today's society, that's not the case.

Tabaddor described his fall into poetry - a time in college when it was important, when it played a role in his life. His take on poetry was not that it didn't have an impact when read, but that, if people in a society choose to live without it, it must not matter. Tabaddor said that's currently the case in America.

At one point, when asked how poetry doesn't matter when in some countries poetry is outlawed by dictatorships, in fear of provoking change, Tabaddor said he wasn't arguing poetry's merit in general, but whether or not it matters today in America's society.

At first, Levine took a different approach, arguing that poetry is "only a medium, like whistling, that delivers something to which we can respond."

The New York man described the medium to that of a block of marble, which he said mattered not until placed in the hands of a creator, like Michelangelo, who had the ability to turn it into something meaningful. The same argument was given to the value of a twig on the ground. The stick itself does not matter, he said. He illustrated the scenario in which the twig was picked up and hit against the head of a king - an action that changed the course of history.

"Nonetheless, does a stick really matter?" he asked the audience. "Neither does poetry."

During voting breaks, poet Ed Bok Lee, an associate professor of poetry out of the Twin Cities, took the stage. Lee, who has published books of poetry and has been recognized by media outlets across the country, including MTV, performed a variation of slam poetry, touching on his Asian American roots and the lives of his family members, who were immigrants.

The event closed with a social gathering at the cultural center.