A Music of Speech


 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.

This moving verse by the Welsh poet Gillian Clarke (Collected Poems, Carcanet, 1997) recognises how listening and reciting poetry learned by heart in childhood can unlock memories and emotions for people suffering from dementia and other illnesses such as depression.  This is the territory that will be explored, both in words and illustrations, by TONY HUSBAND in his emotive yet witty account of his father’s sad decline (Take Care, Son.  The Story of my Dad and his Dementia).

Dementia affects more than 600,000 people in the UK and the number is predicted to double within the next 30 years.  For those living with the disease themselves or helping those who suffer from it, it is of course a day-to-day struggle with some days being significantly more tolerable than others.  Just as in the poem cited above, recent research has revealed the power of poetry, when read aloud, to revive a sense of identity, history and place for people who may not be able to remember clearly what they did yesterday or even who they are.

As part of the Berwick Literary Festival in 2016 I volunteered to go into a local care home to recite some favourite poems.  I chose ones likely to have been memorised such as Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, T.S. Eliot’s Macavity the Mystery Cat, and W.H. Auden’s Night Mail.  John Betjeman was also very popular: one of the residents, who had been quiet up to that point, joined in A Subaltern’s Love Song (in praise of Miss Joan Hunter Dunn) with great relish and would have hung onto my copy of his poems if I hadn’t extracted it from her.  I couldn’t believe how positive the reception was (after all, no one was aware of the Festival, I was a relative newcomer to the town, and the reading was delaying afternoon tea!).  Even the resident parrot let out an appreciative squawk.

People also latched onto the personal details I gave about each poet, particularly Frost’s tragic history: his father died when Robert was only 11, leaving the family with no more than 8 dollars.  Both Robert and his mother suffered from depression, as did his daughter and wife, and of his 6 children only 2 outlived him.  What a testament to the redemptive power of poetry!