Poetry By Heart Blog

Spell Casting

16th December 2015

Malkin by Camille Ralphs  The Emma Press

Malkin by Camille Ralphs The Emma Press

After a performance of my poem sequence Malkin about a month ago, one member of the audience came up to me and commented that it was interesting that the poems had a ‘double life’ – that is, they seemed to be enactive both on the page and on the stage.

The poems – which are dramatic monologues (poems written in the voices of individual characters) concerning the horrible but fascinating events of the Pendle Witch Trials, and so lend themselves easily to theatre – make use in print of unorthodox or ‘free’ spelling, through which they achieve a number of effects, some of which I’ll mention below.  I added the performative aspect to the recital of the poems only recently – since the way the poems appear in print is idiosyncratic and emotive, the only way to equal this off the page was to embody a similar impression in performance.  (Likewise, I might add, the only way I thought it possible on the page to equal the passion and empathetic engagement of a performed character was to make use of free spelling!)

Both are enactments of identity, albeit in different ways.  Both H.G. Wells (in his essay ‘For Freedom of Spelling: the Discovery of an Art’) and Simon Horobin (in his 2014 book Does Spelling Matter? ) have noted how orthodox spelling has been singled out as an indicator of class, intelligence and even moral goodness in the past; for a sequence of poems about a group of people maligned by society, no representation of language could be more appropriate than a subversion of this norm.  Additionally: on the page, as David Crystal (in Spell it Out) has pointed out, certain combinations of letters can have an emotive effect – instilled through cultural associations inherited from the language’s history – in much the same way as colours.  Consider, for example, all the emotional associations summoned by the colour red.  Something very similar happens when we are confronted with spellings like ‘kh’, ‘sc’, ‘gn’ and so on – especially when the words most commonly associated with those spellings only arrived into the English language very recently, and so still feel unfamiliar to the native speaker.

How can this sense of identity and emotion come across in a run-of-the-mill, stand-at-the-lectern-and-read-out poetry recital?  It can’t – the language is there, but the psychological upheaval isn’t.  When Allen Ginsberg performed, it frequently looked as if he was possessed by the poetry, as if for those moments he was something – or was in touch with something – larger than himself.  The same is true of the fierce vulnerability brought to contemporary performance poetry by Kate Tempest, or to internet poetry by Steve Roggenbuck.  Their popularity is clear evidence of the human connections they’ve made.  These connections, some heightenings of empathy, are surely the goal of any ambitious poetry reading.

This kind of raging performance isn’t the only effective kind, of course.  Often poetry calls for a more restrained response – quiet conviction, a slower revelation of meaning which allows the audience to meditate on what they are hearing.  Many of the performances given by Poetry By Heart participants are like this; as these are performances of work by another poet, they are to some extent also attempting to relate another identity.  Some are dramatic monologues, too.

‘Spelling’ is in itself a kind of pun – simultaneously a reference to spelling in orthography and an allusion to the oral tradition in poetry at its most ancient (the tradition of the spell or charm, or the chant of ritual).  As Simon Armitage recently stated in his inaugural lecture as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry: originally, “poetry’s instinctive address was to the ear, not to the eye.”  This is not at all to say that we should be literary luddites and ignore the technology of text – just that, where possible, it’s a good idea to use the full range of performative resources at our disposal, to make a work connective in as many ways as we can.  The ear and eye should move the mind in tandem; to produce work that maintains links not only with literature’s (and, by this, humanity’s) past but with its future, it’s pertinent to remain aware of the traditions of bard and scop as well as more recent textual developments.  (It’s worth mentioning at this point that unorthodox spelling, through the influences of the internet and txtspk, has almost become our vernacular.)

Why might it be necessary to state this case, to combine resources, augment the traditional with the avant-garde and vice versa?  Perhaps because, in the face of contemporary literary movements like ‘uncreative writing’, the lyric poet has the opportunity to loudly reassert and reinvent her relevance.  I, like so many writers, want to connect to the audience in a way that is visceral and resonant.  I want the audience to feel as well as hear the words, to know that here is poetry with blood in its mouth, that never minds its Ps and Qs and isn’t scared of spitting.  As Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  The performance of poems with a theme this dark can be a kind of community catharsis – but particularly a kind which recognises the smallest voice, which raises the smallest voice to a volume at which it can be appreciated.  That feels important right now.

There are numerous ways for a poem to wing its way into the world. To give poems a double life, or to make them doubly alive, make the most of most.

~

CamilleAbout the Author:   Camille Ralphs started in Stoke, and has studied in Lancaster, Cambridge and now Oxford.  She has been a poetry editor at international arts and literature magazine The Missing Slate since 2013; her debut pamphlet Malkin is out now with The Emma Press, and can be purchased here: https://theemmapress.com/shop/malkin-paperback/.  Some of her earlier work has been published in Earth-Quiet: Poems from the Tower Poetry Summer School 2012, Best of Manchester Poets Volume 3 and elsewhere.  She has performed her work in various venues across the UK.  In 2014, she was shortlisted for the position of Staffordshire Poet Laureate.

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The Power of Poetry For People With Dementia

2nd December 2015

Daffodil

Image courtesy of Feggy Art Creative Commons

I am a firm believer that the arts play an important part in all our lives. We might not be conscious of it, but whether we take our pleasure from curling up with a good book; watching a spellbinding performance on stage or our televisions; or losing ourselves in the creation of our own masterpieces, the arts can leave a significant impression on us all. At Alzheimer’s Society we champion the arts as a way for people with dementia and carers to express themselves. We believe everyone has the right to participate in the arts, and for people with dementia, we know that there are many benefits. It can improve quality of life and well-being by stimulating emotions and creativity.

Organisations like The Reader champion shared reading groups which they believe improve quality of life through cognitive stimulation, social interaction and meaningful engagement each week. From Betjeman and Blake to Wordsworth and Yeats, there is also some evidence that reading poetry could have therapeutic benefits for people with dementia and a number of poets have explored dementia in their work. Gillian Clarke’s famous poem about conducting a poetry reading in a hospital captures the moment when a man who has not spoken for many years suddenly recites Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’:

The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.

Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

(Gillian Clarke Collected Poems Carcanet 1997)

For those interested in this subject it is worth noting that The National Association of Writers in Education produced a volume of their journal devoted to ‘Writing and Dementia’. (Volume 61 www.nawe.co.uk )

Many of my colleagues are lucky enough to witness the power of poetry first-hand. Reciting the rhymes and rhythms, metre and cadence of a good poem can bring great pleasure as Pam Ollis, Alzheimer’s Society’s Social Events Coordinator knows only too well. At an Alzheimer’s Society Memory Café several poetry sessions have taken place, one featuring a local poet who read her own poems and encouraged others to read theirs as well.

Pam said: “The sessions went down really well and a stand out moment for me was seeing a lovely lady who has been living with Alzheimer’s disease for five years, read out ‘Jerusalem’ when she had never uttered more than a few words in the entire year of knowing her. She really came to life and it was fabulous to see the power of poetry.

“A carer also read out a poem ‘My love is like a red red rose’ to his wife who has dementia and the whole room was moved to tears.”

Most people with dementia remember the distant past more clearly than recent events. This is because memories tend to decline in reverse order to when they were experienced. People will often have difficulty remembering what happened a few minutes or hours ago, but can recall, in detail, life when they were much younger.

For that reason, poetry can be a useful tool for reminiscence activities; a poem has the potential to unlock memories and emotions. Perhaps there was a poem that someone will remember because their parents or grandparents read it to them when they were a child, or a poem that was used in English lessons at school. Maybe there were poems written by husbands or wives in the early days of a budding romance.

It is worth acknowledging that a poem may not always elicit fond memories, a particular subject may cause someone to recall unhappy times. Or it could be that for some people with dementia poetry and English lessons are not the things to get hearts racing. But that said, the power of both the arts, and poetry in particular, certainly strikes a chord with many of us and a project like Poetry By Heart has every chance of encouraging creative engagement with poetry in the classroom and beyond.

‘Your story’ is a place on Alzheimer’s Society’s website for people to share their experiences of living with dementia. Stories can be submitted by anyone who has been affected by dementia, including people with dementia, carers and relatives. Visit www.alzheimers.org.uk/yourstory to find out more.

It seems fitting to sign off this blog with some poetry. This verse from a 16 line poem was shared with me by a colleague on behalf of 78 year-old Pat McCarthy. Pat is living with dementia. She is very creative and enjoys painting as well as putting pen to paper and writing her own poetry.

AUTUMN

Autumn is a lovely time, with leaves all brown and yellow.

It’s like the autumn of my life when I began to mellow.

When I was young I had no time to sit and look around

But, now I’m getting older all these pleasures I have found.

There now seems to be a growing body of evidence that the structure and patterns of poetry and the reminiscences of poetry can be beneficial for some people with dementia as they engage with, in Clarke’s words, ‘the music of speech’.

JAbout the Author: Jenna Hopkinson is the media officer for Alzheimer’s Society covering the South West of England. She has an interest in communication and has a BA in English Language and Communication from Cardiff University. Alzheimer’s Society encourages people to share their experience of living with dementia by submitting poetry or stories to the ‘Your Story’ page on their website.

Visit alzheimers.org.uk/yourstory for further details.

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