Eleven months ago I began working on a Get Into Reading project at a local care home for elderly people with dementia. Since then I have been struck by my experiences of reading to and with individuals, some of whom struggle to remember who or where they are, but can recite the words of a poem they learnt at school 60 years ago.
Interestingly, poetry receives a completely different reaction to the short stories and chunks of prose I attempted near the beginning of the project. There is something about the poems, the way they sound and move ( everyone prefers poems with a clear rhythm and rhyme scheme), but also in the fact that each line is full of meaning which can be pondered and considered over a period of time, rather than got at instantly. Here is a short example from the final stanza of I wandered lonely as a cloud:
‘For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude’
You can appreciate the instant sound and rhythm of the words, but as they are read, that rhythm slows you down, and draws your attention to the words themselves and to their meaning. I believe this is a big part of what appeals to the people I am working with. Poetry provides the opportunity to hold a thought together through time. So much of the communication we have with people is fleeting and in the care system, with time such a precious commodity exchanges are often hurried. The staff at the care home are fantastic and I know they would dearly like to have more time to really engage with patients, but interactions operate under time pressure. With these poems, there is a chance to stop for a moment and hold onto the words and understand the meaning. And the experience is not a solitary one. Many people in the care home have talked to me about loneliness. It can be difficult for residents to hold meaningful conversations with one another, lost as they are in their own world and way of understanding it. I have observed dialogues where the exchanges bear no relation to each other, two separate conversations held together by intonation only. In the reading group however instead of disparate, disconnected conversations, connections are made, with the poem acting as the shared point of focus.
In a discussion we had about February Afternoon by Edward Thomas, people started talking about the line
‘Time swims before me, making as a day
A thousand years…’
One lady commented,
‘I understand now. I sometimes find it hard to understand things, but we’ve talked about it together and it’s helped. Sometimes in the afternoon when you try and talk about something it doesn’t drop – then you talk about it here and it sinks in and you can understand. I loved the way he puts something down here that we can read about and know something of’.
I couldn’t agree more.
Here’s the link to Get Into Reading again.