In this blog, Dr Virginia Bower discusses the value of poetry and how it can influence our lives in powerful and long-lasting ways.
Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks - Plutarch
Poets try to capture the essence of something and reveal this, not necessarily in its entirety, to the reader. They provide us with a lens through which to examine a person, or a place; an emotion or a sense. They allow us a glimpse of the unknown through the magical interplay of words on a page or expressed aloud.
We live in challenging times and children are exposed to concepts through multiple media, often before they can understand the meaning or import of these. This can cause anxiety and uncertainty, and often young people are left to try to make sense of what they see and hear. Poetry can help with this sense-making. In poems, children hear the echoes of their own concerns, in the words of others. They can articulate their own thoughts and questions through creating their own poems – a free and freeing outlet for feelings and emotions. Beyond the more serious themes found in poetry, there are also clever, funny, witty, life-affirming poems which can allow children to laugh, play with words and let their own creative juices run riot!
Promoting poetry throughout the early years and primary education, so that children go into secondary schooling with a positive attitude towards this genre, is vital and, as educators, we have a responsibility to ensure this. However, there is a far longer reach in terms of the mental health benefits of poetry, as we advance through life. Let me just give one example. Helen Gregory (2011) undertook a project in care homes for people with dementia (PWD), entitled ‘Try to Remember’. As part of the project, a poet sat with PWD and asked them to reminisce and talk about anything they wished – their lives, families, events in the past, people they had known. The poet recorded their words, verbatim, took them away and turned them into poems, using the original words as much as possible. These poems were then read aloud in individual or group sessions (sometimes including families as well as carers), and copies were kept in patients’ records. During the read aloud sessions, PWD who may not normally have been responsive to outside stimuli, recognised and responded when they heard their own words revealed through the poems. Gregory realised that poetry could enable PWD to explore and preserve memories; that poetry could improve communication between PWD and their carers and families; and that the creating and sharing of poetry and ensuing conversations had the effect of ‘re/humanizing dementia sufferers in the eyes of those who care for them’. She includes a wonderful quote which highlights the benefits acknowledged by the carers: ‘memories were captured in the poems, pinned like butterflies before their colours faded’.
Poetry has the power to connect different generations, to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries and to build networks whereby a shared language forges bonds and relationships. We are surrounded by poetry in the form of advertising, graffiti, playground skipping games, songs, sayings, radio jingles. Raising an awareness of poetry in our environment, so that young learners can more easily identify with this powerful genre, can enhance teaching and learning and life. As Carol Ann Duffy states, it is available to us all:
You can find poetry in your everyday life, your memory, in what people say on the bus, in the news, or just what's in your heart.
Gregory, H. (2011) ‘Using poetry to improve the quality of life and care for people with dementia: A qualitative analysis of the Try to Remember programme’, Arts and Health, 3, 2, pp.160-172.