I Never Told Anybody Teaching Poetry Writing in a Nursing Home

Your leaves were yellow
And some of them were darker
And I picked them up
And carried them in the house
And put them in different vases

Your leaves sound different
I couldn’t understand why
The leaves at that time of year
Had a rustle about them
And they would drop
At the least little thing
And I would listen
And pick up some of them.
—Nadya Catalfano

Last spring and summer, I taught poetry writing at the American Nursing Home in New York City. The American Nursing Home is on the Lower East Side, at Avenue B and Fifth Street. I had about twenty-five students, and we met sixteen times, usually on Wednesday mornings for about an hour. The students were all incapacitated in some way, by illness or old age. Most were in their nineties, eighties, and seventies. Most were from the working class and had a limited education. They had worked as dry cleaners, messengers, short order cooks, domestic servants. A few had worked in offices, and one had been an actress. The nursing home gave them safety and care, and a few activities, and sometimes a trip to a show or to a museum. They did little or no reading or writing. None had ever written poetry.

I was assisted throughout by poet Kate Farrell, who, along with taking down students’ poems and talking to them about their work, also helped me plan the lessons and directed the workshop when I wasn’t there. We always had the assistance, too, of one of the social workers at the nursing home, Suzanne Uriel or Barbara Mittelmark, as well as, for about ten classes, two volunteers from Hospital Audiences, a group which, along with Poets and Writers, had helped me to find the American Nursing Home and to arrange to teach there.

The idea to teach old and ill people to write poetry had come to me as a result of an interesting hour I spent working with poetry at the Jewish Old Age Home in Providence, Rhode Island, and as a result of other hours, much less happy ones, I had spent as a visitor in nursing homes where there was nothing of that kind going on. I wanted to see what could be done. Old people had long lives to look back on. Removed from certain of life’s struggles, they had time to think and the chance to be detached, objective, and dreamy in a way probably not possible to them before. If, in the blankness of a nursing home, they could write poetry, it would be a good thing—a serious thing for them to work at, something worth doing well that engaged their abilities and their best thoughts and feelings.

I sensed this possibility, but it was evident that the students I had at the American Nursing Home were removed from poetry and from the writing of poetry in many ways. None had written it before and none, I think, would have …

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Letters

William Ross’s Poem February 17, 1977