If you’re a regular visitor to The Reader Online then you’ll already know – and indeed, share – our belief that taking time to read, be it poetry, a short story or a long and luxurious novel, is one of life’s ultimate feel-good activities; an eternal and instantly effective pick-me-up; a prescription not just for the body, but for the mind, heart and soul too (where else can you get such a miracle cure-all? Not many places, I’d bet). Amongst gloomy statistics that spark off a panic that regular reading and a love of literature may be in decline, there are plenty of positive stories that signal exactly otherwise and support the notion that reading really makes a difference to our lives in more ways than one. The power of reading is making headlines worldwide (just recently, it’s made the news Down Under); any editors out there could have given us a call and we would have given them an exclusive on the matter long ago…
One of the most recent studies exploring exactly what wonders reading can do comes from an incredibly prestigious source – and has unearthed some astonishing and really quite heartening results . Research carried out by Oxford University has found that poetry is not just, as John Keats would put it, a Thing of Beauty, but also acts as a comforter, makes us feel better and significantly shapes our sense of self and identity; all factors which most certainly count for a lot. In particular it’s the poems that come from our childhood and early adulthood – and especially those we’ve read so much that we’ve committed them firmly to memory and can recite them off by heart – that offer the most consolation to us; and in this way and others, they contribute to making us who we are. Remarkable stuff indeed. The findings of the Oxford study have been backed up by very similar research from the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading which is looking into the relationship between poetry and memory and specifically, the ways that people remember poems that are personally significant to them. Head researcher Dr Clare Rathbone has identified that poetry that is so well known it could almost be part of our DNA is strongly centred in our individual ‘reminiscence bumps’ – the memories that each of us can most readily recall. Such memories are ingrained into our very beings, and such findings are testament to the ability of poetry to eke them out; most certainly they support the incredibly vital work The Reader Organisation does reading and sharing poems with dementia patients.
It’s not so surprising to discover that poems we know inside out through frequent reading and recitation, ones that we cherish and have poured so much meaning – and of ourselves – into should figure so vividly in our minds and memories, but the fact that collections of words and created images are quite so significant that they connect to or entirely supersede other reminiscences and recollections is quite extraordinary in itself. I know I can let major events pass me by without so much as a second thought months or years down the line (and don’t even attempt to test my long-gone learning of history, science or the solar system), but a line, lyric or vision of a scene glimpsed for a moment can remain as crystal clear as when they first occurred or were happened upon. Summarising what I’d suspect is a rather common occurrence when it comes to what our brain retains is Thomas Bailey Aldrich, in a poem short, sweet and succinct enough to be able to easily commit to memory – which is quite handy, considering.
My mind lets go a thousand things,
Like dates of wars and deaths of kings,
And yet recalls the very hour–
‘Twas noon by yonder village tower,
And on the last blue noon in May–
The wind came briskly up this way,
Crisping the brook beside the road;
Then, pausing here, set down its load
Of pine-scents, and shook listlessly
Two petals from that wild-rose tree.
Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907)