When my Mom was in her 70s, she had a stroke which affected the speech centre of her brain. Not only did she have difficulty in speaking and in finding the right words, she also found herself completely unable to read. The words were just black marks on a white page with no meaning. The doctors said there was nothing to be done about it. But while she was in hospital, we were chatting with the woman in the next bed, who quoted a few lines of poetry applying to what we were talking about. My Mom perked up immediately and said, ‘I know that poem’. This gave me an idea.
The next day I came in to the hospital with an anthology of poems – old poems, the kind my mother would have read and learned when she was in school. I opened the volume to Wordsworth’s poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’. Mom looked at the page and said she couldn’t read it. ‘But you know this one’, I said, and as I started reading it aloud, I pointed my finger to each of the words. My mother started to speak the lines with me, reciting from her memory. It seems that the area of the brain which stored her memory of poems was different than the speech centre which had been damaged by her stroke. And then the magic happened. Suddenly she began to be able to relate the words she was speaking to the words my finger pointed at on the page. The incomprehensible black marks started to make sense again, and formed into written words in her mind. She could read the poem.
That moment was a breakthrough. After practicing by reading more poems, in time she was able to read the newspaper, other books, and do her favorite crossword puzzles again. She could even beat me playing Scrabble. Her speech also improved to the point that most people didn’t know she had any issues with it.
This memory came back to me today on World Poetry Day. That’s why I use poetry in some of my Writing for Wellbeing workshops – because poetry really can heal us in all sorts of ways.