Poetry and memory

 In Poetry, Poetry Classes London

A few years ago I was asked to run a short series of poetry workshops for older people in supported accommodation.  I had never done anything like it and felt quite nervous- what theme could I pick that everyone could relate to, that they might feel confident enough to share with a small group?  I lighted upon the theme of memory.  I read out “Digging” by Seamus Heaney, then asked each person to pick a memory- one they reflected on as positive- and write about it.  Each person had a support worker at hand to help, and soon discussion was flowing.  One woman wrote about her experience of a Jamaican wedding 50 years ago; another wrote about her experiences during the Blitz.  Some of these writers had cognitive issues, including dementia but in the end, everyone had a memory to share.


We all have memories and stories we want, or need, to share.  Poetry is a great way of telling them, whether in a haiku capturing a moment in time, a sonnet trying to immortalise a love story, or a long, blank-verse piece retelling a Greek epic.  When writing about a particular story or moment, I tend to re-experience the emotions and sensations of that time.  Inhabiting those feelings, there is also wiggle-room.  Being able to re-enter your story at any given point, does not mean that you have to be trapped in it.  You have some creative licence.  You have some freedom.  You have the right to make your piece weighty, but you also reserve the privilege of playfulness.


Telling our stories can be healing. Lucy English in the Guardian writes about how spoken word poetry can boost mental health by allowing a safe space to be open about various issues, while popular contemporary poets Rupi Kaur and Nayyirah Waheed make no secret of the idea that their poetry is intended to be healing- both for themselves, and for their readers.


Of course, when you pick up the pen for the first time (or the hundredth!) it can be hard to tell what you will unleash.  That’s why I would advise being in a safe space- environmentally as well as emotionally- when turning to writing about memories.  As with all things that can boost wellbeing- like running, for example- self-care is essential.  After a run, you might stretch and take a bath, and the same goes for writing.  When you’ve written something rich in emotion, it can be helpful to have things around you that ground you in the present moment and remind you of where you are.  I tend to opt for squares of dark chocolate, inspired by the scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in which Harry is given chocolate to eat after a Dementor attack.


In the following posts, I’ll be writing about whether, how, and why, poetry can boost our wellbeing, and the process of telling our stories can be both healing and empowering.


Until next time, why not have a free-write about memories?


Blog written by Becky Balfourth

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