Of course I knew that poetry can short circuit.
That’s the point of it really – to go straight from the centre of one’s being – the deep heart’s core – to another, perhaps not needing even to think. Like music, poetry can fly: cut directly through clutter – all those habits, pretence and assorted nonsense and trivia of everyday so-called grown-up life, to ancient memories, deep-seated experiences and relationships, and love itself.
I’ve been reminded of this vital ability of poetry by the recent happy experience of working with an amazing National Memory Day Project. Literature Works at Plymouth University, in partnership with the Poetry Archive, supported by the Alzheimer’s Society put out a call to train and commission poets to use poetry to help people living with memory loss.
The idea was that by reviving memories through the shared recollection of much-loved poems, confusion might be alleviated, conversation encouraged, speech difficulties eased and creativity stimulated.
Learning and reciting poetry by heart used to be the norm. Many older people retain their memories – and potentially, their enjoyment – of those much-loved poems. This is particularly the case in memory loss, when recent memories may fade rapidly, but earlier recall is much better preserved.
So for that generation the memory of poetry has never gone away – it lies there, waiting to be awoken.
I applied and was pleased to be accepted on a training course. Our tutor, from an acting background, was superb. I learnt much about choosing, reading and performing which has proved helpful to me in a general way. But specifically, the course gave the necessary confidence to deliver poetry to people living with dementia.
Soon enough, I found myself at a Memory Café – more than a little anxious, to tell the truth.
But as soon as I started reading, I felt the magic of poetry come to my aid. Rhyme and metre to start with, and then the flash of recognition, which was electric.
I took the risk of actually singing the Owl and the Pussycat (the music was an old childhood memory of my own, I suddenly realised, as I looked at the printed page and was considering how best to read it out loud). One older lady with severe dementia who, I learnt afterwards, hadn’t uttered anything for a long time, began to join in – words and music remarkably intact. I could almost stop, and leave it to her. Her carer was overcome.
I’ve now read more than a few times and have had similar experiences nearly every time. Along with my increased confidence in and, I hope, skill at reading, I feel my own writing has benefited. Without I hope sounding patronising, I’ve learnt about the poetic language of dementia: people often talk poetically, and their natural rhythms tend to be iambic pentameters. And I’ve been reminded of the power of poetry to make a positive impact on the lives of not just those living with dementia, but all of us – however intact our memories happen to be. Poetry enables us all to share, recall, explore and create together – and to communicate.
Here’s a couple of little poems on the theme of dementia.
It’s interesting – I don’t suffer
from dementia. That’s not quite right –
it’s more a case of how he spelled it –
dimentia. Everything is not so bright
so you cannot find the occasional word
that you were looking for
like Proper Nouns particularly.
And others too – they hide away
as if they know you’re searching
to pop up later when it doesn’t matter
any longer. There it is, her name
after I stopped trying to remember.
No, not suffering as of course I knew
knew who she was – just not her name.
To forget may bring relief
as lights go down, some words go too
lost in dimpsy for a while
perhaps for longer
who knows? It’s early dusk,
what lies ahead is no more known
by you than me.
You never know what may come and what may go
stuff gets washed away just when you thought
you wanted it now it’s here but there it’s gone
even as you wonder what it was you never know
something else floats by not what you thought
you had in mind still you never know it may be
useful no need to worry then if you thought
you lost it as the unexpected drifts in so
let the waters flow thoughts come and go
you never know how much you never know.