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Poetry and dementia: A brief interview with Sir Andrew Motion

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Sir Andrew Motion (photo credit: Johnny Ring)

Photo of Sir Andrew Motion by Johnny Ring

For a while now I’ve been working on a book that explores the relationship between health and reading (reading aloud in particular). Despite the numerous sloughs and impasses that attend the process of preparing an academic monograph, I’ve made steady progress, buoyed by some encouraging coups and breakthroughs, not least a recent interview I conducted with the former poet laureate Andrew Motion, whom I approached after learning about his interest in dementia and poetry.

A passionate advocate for, and democratiser of, poetry, Sir Andrew has long communicated the social and therapeutic value of verse, and I wanted to know more about what he thought poetry might possibly contribute to dementia care and our understanding of dementia.  It was a brief – he is a busy man – but rich exchange, and our conversation bolstered my conviction that poetry (perhaps more so than any other mode of literary composition) is able “to cut through or across all sorts of impediments to full consciousness” (to quote Sir Andrew himself).

I started off by asking him how he first thought about poetry in the context of dementia care, and whether he could describe some of his experiences reading to people with dementia or his witnessing such reading?

Andrew Motion: When my mother was ill and in hospital through my late teens and twenties I noticed (although she didn’t have dementia) how much pleasure (though not a ‘literary’ person) she took in reading and hearing poems. Rhyme and strong rhythm seemed to make a very primitive appeal to her, and whenever she remembered poems from her childhood it seemed she was encountering treasure that she especially valued. This laid the foundation of my interest in thinking about how poetry helps ill people.

Then a few years ago I was approached to become the president of an organisation called Kissing It Better (there’s a website: http://www.kissingitbetter.co.uk/), which sends secondary school children into care homes to sing and recite poems to people with dementia. I gladly accepted the role and went on a few visits with the kids – and was always astonished by the effect of these little performances. Again, the primitive appeal of rhythm and rhyme was able to cut through or across all sorts of impediments to full consciousness, and to release and revive other poems that the patients had lurking in their memories. Really very seriously upset people would become (though generally briefly) lucid and happy.

It was extremely moving to see. I’m not a neuroscientist, but it seems as though the brains of our species are hard-wired to retain and enjoy the characteristic features of poetry (rhyme, rhyme, language that does not aspire to spell a single exact proposition). As I say, we might happen to grow up to enjoy speaking about poetry in a complex and sophisticated way – and to writing it similarly. But truly the appeal it makes to us is basic and fundamental. We are (which school schoolteachers and curriculum-setters tend to forget) a poetic species. Poetry is like breathing to us.

Kevin Harvey: Some critics (I’m thinking of literary scholars here) are perhaps a little leery of, or haven't really considered, using poetry in therapeutic contexts (seeing it as an instrumental use of literature, reducing texts to a form of self-help). In light of this, I wondered what your views were on using poems to achieve therapeutic ends?

AM: I can understand why critics are leery of the therapeutic role that poetry can play in life. Their problem is that a therapeutic role privileges things other than literary skill, density of writing, and necessary literary effects. In my own case, I make a clear distinction between the therapeutic role, and what I’d expect to see valued in a book of literary criticism and aimed-for in a workshop. And having made the distinction, I think that critics who confuse it, and who disparage the role of poetry in therapy, need to get a life.

KH: In an era where there is an emphasis on biomedical cures for dementia, do you think there is a greater scope for role for poetry in responding to it?

AM: Absolutely. If I were Secretary of State at the Department of Health I’d invest in Kissing It Better and other such organisations (there are a few others, aren’t there): a great deal could be achieved on a comparative small budget.


Postscript: Not long after our interview, I came across a recent poem of Andrew’s, ‘Better Life’,* which he’d written to help promote the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s A better life campaign, a project which aims to raise awareness and improve the lives of older adults. The poem, which has been described as "a moving rebuke to a society which isolates and ignores its wisest citizens", is a fine example of ‘found’ poetry, a form of composition in which the author intricately weaves together other people’s voices into a composite whole or collage, in this instance the voices of older people whose life experiences would have otherwise remained disregarded.

In this respect, ‘Better Life’, besides the musical properties to which Andrew mentioned in his interview, demonstrates another feature of poetry, namely: its ability to validate, in memorable terms, personhood and individual experience. Or to put it another way (as the writer John Berger so beautifully does), poetry ensures that what has been witnessed ‘cannot disappear as if it had never been . . . The promise is that language has acknowledged, given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.’

*‘Better Life’ can be read and heard at: https://www.jrf.org.uk/betterlife

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