On Poetry and Memory
by Karla Huston
I never saw a Purple Cow
I never hope to see one
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one
Those lines are from a poem by Gelett Burgess. It is a poem I remember my father reciting to me when I was a child. I remember imagining that purple cow mooing through my past, swishing her purple tail.
I’m more serious about poetry now. In January of this year, I was honored to begin serving as the seventh Poet Laureate of Wisconsin. Since my term began, I’ve participated in several Memory Café events around the state at public libraries, community centers and assisted living facilities.
Memory Cafés are social events for people experiencing early dementia and for family and friends of those affected. At a typical event, there is relaxed conversation, often some kind of program and refreshments, as well as resources. In the Fox Cities, where I live, there are Memory Cafes organized by The Fox Valley Memory Project. In fact there are more than 60 Memory Cafés in Wisconsin, not counting the Milwaukee area.
Why is a poet like myself involved?
Aging is isolating, especially in our youth-centered culture. Adding memory loss makes that isolation worse. Poetry, like music, has the ability to resonate and connect to that place in the brain where language lives.
I could share statistics, like how many people currently suffer from some form of dementia (an estimated 5.5 million Americans) and how many will suffer in another 50 years (triple that number?). I could cite figures about cost, which would include the price of care and the toll on caregivers. I could talk about stigma and about loneliness.
Instead, I’ll talk about my mother-in-law, Edna Huston, who suffered from memory loss the last five or six of her nearly 100 years. She is the inspiration for my desire to work with those with memory loss, specifically with the Memory Café projects in Wisconsin.
Edna was an extraordinary woman. For more than 20 years, she volunteered at a nursing home. She helped create a used-clothing store to raise money for fishing trips, picnics and other resident outings. When there was music for the residents, she was the first person out of her seat to encourage others to dance. During the final years of her life, when there was music at the care facility where she lived, she still danced, even while holding tight to her walker.
When I participate in a Memory Café program, I start by introducing myself to everyone. I like to take people’s hands in mine to say personal hellos. Then we start talking about poetry.
Our elders routinely committed classic poems to memory in their youth. Gary Glazner, of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, travels the country conducting Memory Café events and training facilitators. From him, I’ve learned a “call and response” technique. As a group, we recite classic poems together, one line at a time. Poems that rely heavily on rhyme and rhythm work best. Sometimes we’ll include hand gestures and movement.
Once, while reciting poetry with a group at a care facility, a man walked by on his way to his room. When he heard us reciting Longfellow’s The Arrow and the Song, he stopped. “Longfellow? I know some Longfellow.” And then he recited two poems. We asked him to join the group, but he hesitated and walked on. About five minutes later, he came back and asked to recite two more poems.
Often, after a call-and-response session, we will write a poem together, one contribution at a time. No one is pressured to remember, but everyone is encouraged to be creative. Once, with a group whose dementia was severe, we worked on a poem about spring, using the senses. “What does spring feel like?” for example. While we went around the circle, one woman repeated the same story over and over, like a skipped record. Her mind was like a spinning coin.
The activity director gently held the woman’s cheeks with her hands to help her focus and asked: “What does spring feel like?”
The woman stopped and said, “Why, it feels like being kissed by a horse.” And who wouldn’t like to be kissed by a horse on a warm spring day?
Selfishly, I find Memory Cafés gratifying and a lot of fun. It’s rewarding to talk and to laugh with the elders in my community. I am aware that when they are gone, so are their stories.
Anyone can do this. You don’t need special talents or a crown of poetic laurels. All you need is a love of poetry, a love of people and a desire to be open and offer something of yourself to others. As Longfellow once said:
Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
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