A Few Thoughts on Reading and Reciting Poetry in Public
Holding people’s attention with poetry is always challenging, perhaps even more so when your audience is afflicted with dementia. I like to have at least a few poems memorized so I can walk around freely and recite the poems. In performance poetry lingo this is called, “working the room.” With the Alzheimer’s folks I come close to them and reach out my hand to them, shaking, holding their hands or just touching them if they show interest in interacting with me.
Often at poetry readings someone will read in what is called the “poetry voice.” It is a monotone, with slight lilt, each line ending in a questioning up turn. Although, there is nothing wrong in principle in sounding that way, the problem comes when the person reads poem after poem with exactly the same sound. Imagine going to hear a band and every song sounded the same, or a play where the actors performed every scene with the same intensity and voice. We wouldn’t stand for it, yet many poets think it is perfectly fine to read all their poems, no matter the subject, exactly the same.
Try projecting some of the poems like a street corner seller from Elizabethan England, say a fish monger. How about sounding like a hotdog vendor from a baseball game? Think of how an auctioneer sounds or a flight attendant. How would a lover read a poem before a fireplace in full woo mode? Try on different regional accents.
There is such a richness of voice in a New England fisherman’s voice, a Southern Bell’s mint julep, or a Texas rodeo twang. The idea is to be playful in your reading; to use a variety of volumes and intensity; to listen to all the wonderful voices around you and bring them into your reading. You don’t have to be a perfect mimic, just be aware of all the possible sounds the human voice can make, from a conspiratorial whisper to a parachutist’s falling shout of joy; from cooing baby; to a football coach’s gaming winning rage. Put a little passion in your voice.
If you have a few of the poems memorized you can clap along with a particularly rhythmic poem. I clap out the rhythm to Blake’s “Tyger.” You can more easily look up and make eye contact with your audience. You can move around the room and recite a section to each person. I jump up out of my chair and recite, “Tyger, tyger, burning bright. In the forest of the night,” to each member of the group as I circle around the room. Most of all I try to have fun with each poem.
One reading strategy I follow in the readings is to cluster small groups of poems around a subject. I bring in some material for the residents to hold, smell and touch. Some examples are Spring poems and daffodils; Christmas or winter poems and snow; seashells and ocean or water poems; baseball poems and tossing around Nerf balls; leaves and tree poems. I recite the poems and pass around the material. Any material that the group can feel and that might help start discussions; what gardens they had; who played sports; how snow feels; how pretty the flowers are.
Stages of Alzhiemer’s and Uses of Poetry
It is generally recognized that Alzheimer’s disease progresses through stages. For purposes of working with poetry we will define the stages as early, middle, late, and terminal. Using various techniques the APP can allow you to work at the person’s level.
In the early stage where some memory is still intact often the people can compose poems by having the you write down what they are saying. They can often still engage in discussions. Reading them poems about flowers can ellicit talk about gardens from their past. Find poems that have a connection to the person’s life.
As they begin to lose more of their ability to speak in the middle stages hearing poems they learned as children can prompt them to say words or lines of poems along with you. This is quite remarkable, as the folks at this stage are often not able to hold a conversation or recognize people they are close to including--heart breakingly-- family members. They have little memory left of anything so to hear them speak and remember anything is reasurring.
We simply don’t understand enough about the disease to know what is happening in their minds and they are unable to communicate what they are going through.
Late & Terminal Stages
As they shift to late stage and finally into terminal stage and the end of their life, reading them poems can ellicit smiles, tears, kisses, hugs and other non verbal responses that indicate the recitation of poems is having a positive effect. It is this area where the APP becomes primarily about the quality of life.