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I Never Told Anybody Teaching Poetry Writing in a Nursing Home

AUTUMN

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

I

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 begun without the workshop. The workshop had to provide a bridge between what poetry was and what the people there were—old, ill, relatively uneducated, separated from their early lives, cautious about trying anything new, afraid people might think them “finished,” worthless, unable to do things well. They also had a conception of poetry likely to make it impossible for them to write it well: the rhyming, metrical treatment of “poetical” subject matter.

Not only were they unfamiliar with poetry, they were quite out of the habit of learning, of sitting in a room and hearing something explained. These were problems aside from the physical ones. Some had recent memory loss, or were forgetful, tended to ramble a little when they spoke. Everyone was ill, some people sometimes in pain. Depression was frequent. A few were blind, and some had serious problems in hearing. Several students had severe speech problems and were very difficult, at first, to understand.

To be added to all this was their confinement within the walls and within the institutional regime of the nursing home; they had little chance to find, as poets usually do, fresh inspiration in new experiences, sights, and sounds. They lived without either the city or nature to inspire their feelings. Poetry, if they did write it, would have to come from memory and from what happened and from what we could help make happen right there in the nursing home. And only a very few of our students were able to use their hands to write—because of muscular difficulties or blindness.

Still, it is such a pleasure to say things, and such a special kind of pleasure to say them as poetry. I didn’t, when I began, think much about the problems. I started, instead, with my feeling for the pleasure people could find in writing poetry, and assumed I could deal with any problems as they came up. My students, in fact, once given the chance to begin, were, in spite of all the difficulties, happy to be writing poems.

The method of teaching worked itself out as we went along. I began cautiously, asking people to think of a sentence or two. Then I suggested simple forms: say three or four things about colors, and put the name of a color in every line. Gradually, encouraged by the students’ success, I proposed bolder and bolder ideas: imagine you are the ocean, and write a poem with every line beginning, “I, the Ocean.” Listen to this Keats sonnet and write a poem about talking to the moon or stars. In every class I gave a suggestion for the kind of poem they should write. This gave new ideas and relieved these hesitant, inexperienced students of the burden of finding a proper subject of their own. I said, “Write a poem about the quietest things or the quietest times you can think of; if you like, put a different quiet thing in every line.”

The students told us their poems aloud, and we wrote them down. I was afraid this might not give them as much a sense of composing a work as writing would, but we found ways to do it that did: we were always reading lines back, saying, “Here is what you’ve written so far,” and, “What do you want to say next?” The students’ hesitancy and fear were much alleviated by our encouragement and admiration. My reading the poems aloud at the end of each class was an important part of this. It helped them to see that what they wrote was poetry and could be talked about seriously and admired. The teaching was based on the assumption that there is no insurmountable barrier between ordinary speech and poetry, and its aim was to help students move, easily and with confidence, from one to the other. Between the writer and the poem were no difficult demands of rhyme, meter, rhetoric, diction, or subject matter.

The kind of poetry I had in mind as a model was the unrhymed, nonmetrical, fairly unliterary poetry of such poets as D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams, poetry with music and language like this—

The youth goes up to the white
   horse to put its halter on
And the horse looks at him in
   silence.
They are so silent they are in
   another world.
—D.H. Lawrence, “The White Horse”

or like this—

I think I will do nothing for a long
   time but listen
And accrue what I hear into
   myself…and let sounds con-
   tribute toward me.
I hear the bravuras of birds…the
   bustle of growing wheat…
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

or this—

There were some dirty plates
and a glass of milk
beside her on a small table
near the rank, disheveled bed…
—William Carlos Williams, “The Last Words of My English Grandmother”

Such poetry, with its combination of prosiness, talky quality, repetition, and lyricism, if not something many writers can completely master, is also not completely unapproachable. A modestly educated, unliterary old person can have a chance of writing something like it. He can use the natural strengths for poetry he has: the music of ordinary speech and the memories and feelings his long life has given him. Asked to rhyme or to use meter or any difficult forms, or to write about mythology or metaphysics, most of my students, I think, would have written nothing at all.

Our students didn’t know there was such poetry as that I read to them. Hearing it encouraged them to write and made my praise of their work more intelligible, too. Having read them D. H. Lawrence’s “The White Horse,” I could say how in one poem of theirs the repetition of “quiet,” like Lawrence’s near repetition of “silence” and “silent,” gives a sensation of conclusion and finality, and how coming down on the same word “quiet” makes a very quiet sound—

I always was quiet
And my mother always had to send
   my sisters into the room
To see what made me so quiet.
—Fred Richardson

Our students didn’t know, very consciously at any rate, that repetition, for example, was a part of poetry, or comparisons, or personification, or exaggeration. They didn’t know that details were good to have in a poem, details of color, of weather, of sound. They didn’t know what kind of language could be in a poem, or what kind of form. I taught them what poetry could be, by suggesting subjects and forms, by reading them great poems, and by reading aloud and commenting on their work. It was starting from the beginning in every way, but it didn’t take them long to get a sense of what poetry is. Such a sense seems, and how could it not be, a fairly natural one for people to have. They had it once poetry was no longer something forbidding and remote but something near, familiar, and beautiful—as near as their feelings about a color:

I like green; I used to see so many
   greens on the farm.
I used to wear green and sometimes
   my mother couldn’t find me
Because I was green in the green.
—Mary Tkalek

or as their memories of a quiet time:

The quietest night I remember
Was going out deep-sea fishing
Me and my friend were way out on
   a rowboat fishing
We caught a lot of fish
All the stars were shining
The ocean was quiet
The wind was quiet
And we were quiet
And the fish were biting.
—Leroy Burton

These two poems were written for the second and third classes. Both are good examples of how quickly the students could move from ordinary conversational prose to poetry, with the help of a suggested (and arbitrary) theme and a suggested (repetitive) form, and with an approachable poetic model to emulate. Some of Leroy Burton’s lines are very different from the prose in which he spoke—

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