As a follow-up to my earlier piece on the latest neurological evidence for the actual physical effects of verse, here’s a couple of items detailing further evidence of the power of poetry over the human mind. Catherine Porteus, a reader of UK live poetry platform and fan site Pass On a Poem, describes how the sound of verse enabled her to learn poetry even though she was a self-described dyslexia sufferer. And Living Words, “an arts and literature programme that uses the spoken and written word to help …people with dementia and isolated and disempowered people,” employs “poetry, personalised word books and anthologies” plus other artistic means to literally give these people a voice.
Catherine Porteus pleads for the often disrespected discipline of learning poetry by ‘rote.’ “I suspect that I would now be diagnosed as dyslexic – I couldn’t read till I was past seven, so if I was to hang onto these favourite poems I had to know them by heart,” she says. She relates how she was drilled in poetry at school, and how she resented it then – and is grateful for it now.
Living Words, meanwhile, runs creative residencies as well as various programs and educational initiatives to both reach out directly to dementia sufferers and the disempowered, and to equip and train care workers who might use similar techniques with them. Founder Susanna Howard built on her own crippling experience with stage fright as a young actress to learn to help to use others afflicted with communication difficulties to achieve verbal expression and human contact again.
“Once a relationship is established through active listening, every word spoken is written and recorded. These words are then sculpted in to poems before being put in to individual books,” its materials explain. Only in existence since 2007, the organization will become a charity from next year.
Music has been shown to have similar power “to improve the wellbeing of people.” Is it any wonder that an art form that combines the formal, sensual power of music with the conceptual and psychological force of the word has such power to touch the human mind? Simultaneously, poets who eschew the musical resources of verse should give careful thought to what they are giving up, and why.
“I have enjoyed much of the poetry of the 20th century, from Eliot and C.S. Lewis to Betjeman and Ted Hughes, but no amount of effort enables me to retain it, and I have to return to the written word,”says Catherine Porteus. “Now, as I repeat those long-ago-learnt verses to myself at moments of anxiety or stress, sorrow or elation, or just to alleviate the plain ordinary boredom of traffic jams and bus queues, I am more than grateful to those who enabled me to acquire such a rich store, which will last me as long as my memory does. And I remember too the account by Evgenia Ginsberg in her book Into the Whirlwind of how the poetry she had learnt as a child had enabled her to endure the terrible years in Stalin’s Gulag, and indeed, when in solitary confinement, had, she thought, actually saved her sanity.”
So there you go. Poetry has the power to reach the dyslexic and the demented, and to save your sanity. Just think what it might be able to do for ordinary (more or less) balanced readers. I hope you’re one.