The reading and writing of poetry is always a gift to be treasured, and this is true in a very particular way for elders. As our consciousness continues to evolve, working with time, experience, and the tools of intention and awareness we access deeply intuitive levels of mind; poetry invites us to enter completely into the openness of this altered state.
As we pass through the gateway of poetry, we set out on a journey of infinite wonder, where we harvest unexpected stores of wisdom and beauty within us. Fully present, with concentrated attention, we reap new understandings from the rich memories of a long life. Then, when we turn this same focused awareness to the present moment, fully alive to our senses we find ourselves living more intensely and experiencing more fully.
In my years of conducting poetry workshops for elders, I have found the poetic experience to be a magic elixir. Poetry provides a place for the healing expression of grief, a field for the sharing of joys. In poetry’s state of heightened awareness, we make a stunning discovery: what we did not know, we knew.
Here are some lines by the nineteenth century Indian poet, Ghalib:
For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river –
Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.
Travel far enough into sorrow, tears turn into sighing;
In this way we learn how water can turn into air.
When, after heavy rain, the stormclouds disperse,
Is it not that they’ve wept themselves clear through to the end?
If you want to know the miracle, how wind can polish a mirror,
Look: the shining glass grows green in spring.
It’s the rose’s unfolding, Ghalib, that creates the desire to see –
In every color and circumstance, may the eyes be open for what comes.
Poetry offers a path of deep communication with family and friends. One poet in my workshop presented a poem written to her daughter as a birthday gift. Her daughter responded with a poem of her own, and this exchange of poetry has become a ritual between them, a means of expressing their love for one another.
Another poet was saddened because she felt that after almost fifty years of marriage her husband had become indifferent to her. When she was regularly asked to read her poetry at church events, her husband heard her work and reawakened to the truth of her being. Their relationship was transformed.
Here is a poem by Alice Paul, a workshop participant:
Is This A Table?
The wind blew the door shut
The screen door slammed.
He had to dance quickly into the house
before the door closed on him.
He put his cap on the table.
His cap was an African print worn at a jaunty angle.
He bought it at Black Expo in New York
on one exciting afternoon shared with Black Yankee Baseball Stars of Yesteryear.
He put the cap and its memories on the table.
He put the “junk” mail on the table:
magazines offering exotic travel and glamorous clothes.
He put thoughts of visiting his daughter on the table...
looking forward to seeing those he loves and those they love.
He put the events of his life and his mind on the table
the ribbon stretches on unraveling as life unfolds
recording the days endlessly while telling the story...
The table is available near the door allowing him to put everything on it
no matter what it weighs
because it stands strong
while the putting continues.
Poetry acts as a balm for loneliness. Particularly as we reach our late eighties and nineties, we may have outlived spouses and many close friends. The deep personal connections that we value may no longer be available. The reading and writing of poetry together provides opportunity to create new bonds of heart, mind and spirit, transforming a sense of isolation into a feeling of connection in warm, supportive community.
While poetry keeps all the senses intensely alive to the present moment, it also provides stimulating exercise for the mind. Studies have shown that the intellectual challenges of lifelong learning can create new neurological connections for the brain,
As the poet struggles with form, seeking the precise word, the desired tone, the intellect is nourished and sharpened; as the poet and/or reader of poetry delves into meaning, searching for insight into what it is to be truly human, extra neurons and connections between neurons are created, strengthening and revitalizing the brain,
Here is a Shakespearean sonnet, created by workshop participant Muriel Brooks:
I write this sonnet, not by choice
But by assignment given
To express my poetic inner voice
So secretly within me hidden.
Hours so tirelessly spent
Creating mental images to express
My deepest thoughts so eloquent
Hidden images, within possessed.
Genius I’m not, but continue to try
With limited level of my mind
To make an effort to comply
No vile obscenity you might find.
So be critical, but discreet
Where my sense and dullness meet.
You might want to continue these explorations by looking into Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, a book of essays by Jane Hirshfield. I’d like to close with a poem by an anonymous Navaho poet:
I ask all blessings,
I ask them with reverence,
of my mother the earth,
of the sky, moon, and sun my father.
I am old age: the essence of life,
I am the source of all happiness,
All is peaceful, all in beauty,
all in harmony, all in joy.
Rhoda-Neshama Waller, a Certified Seminar Leader of the Spiritual Eldering Institute, is founding president of TimeLines Community, a not-for-profit organization celebrating the wisdom and creativity of elders. She holds a Masters degree in Comparative Literature and has taught creative writing in schools, universities, libraries and senior centers. She publishes “Traces,” a journal of elderwriting, and is completing a manuscript, “Your Life is a Poem,” about writing your memoirs in poetry. Rhoda-Neshama conducts seminars and workshops. She will be conducting a workshop on Saturday, February 2nd at Living Water Spiritual Center in Winslow, Maine. She lives in Freedom, Maine and can be reached at (207) 382-3135.