Back in the late 1990s, a California poet named Gary Glazner obtained a modest grant from Poets and Writers magazine. His intent was to use poetry as a vehicle to engage people at an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease. As Glazner recounted many years later in an interview with National Public Radio, “I got hooked on it when one day I was reading Longfellow’s poem [“The Arrow and the Song”] and there was one man, he was pretty much out of it, he wasn’t able to participate, his head was down. And I said, ‘I shot an arrow in the air,’ and he said, ‘And where it land I knew not where’—the precise words of the poem’s next line. Glazner described it as “a marvelous moment for me and the whole group.”
Glazner went on to found the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, and the Brooklyn-based program has blossomed throughout the United States and beyond. There are now hundreds of “memory cafes”—venues, often in senior centers, that serve as meeting places for people with Alzheimer’s, including those who are far down the road of this typically slow-moving disease. I plan to attend one of these sessions in the Boston area, but for now I’ll settle for highlighting a few of the poems that are part of Sparking Memories: The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project [www.alzpoetry.com].
There are fifty poems in all, starting with “The Tyger,” by William Blake, the first of the great British Romantic poets. Here are the first five stanzas:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
The poem, which opens like a nursery rhyme, appears to be a meditation on the introduction of malevolence into the world. Was it necessary to include vicious predators into the natural order? The poem is also about the Lamb of God (and Blake’s creative interpretation of Christianity). But knowing this is not a prerequisite for appreciating the poem. Much of the pleasure is in its sharp images and rhyme scheme.
Here is another example, from Blake’s younger contemporary William Wordsworth:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high over vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay;
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in a sprightly dance,
The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee.
A poet could not but be gay,
In such jocund company!
I gazed, and gazed but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought;
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
A formal analysis of this poem would note its rhyme scheme: In the first four lines of each stanza, the last word or syllable of the first line rhymes, or almost rhymes, with the last word or syllable of the third line; the same is true for the fourth line. In the last two lines of each stanza, the rhyme is direct, as in: “And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.” But a formal analysis only gets one so far. It’s the music of the words that matters.
In deference to the holiday season, my next post will appear on New Year’s Day.