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Adult Education: Poetry in Motion — Reading With Doris in Lockdown
By Mike Peters
Social Work Today
Vol. 20 No. 5 P. 32

The pandemic has significantly affected almost all of us in one way or another. But for older people living alone, feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and uncertainty are likely to have accumulated during the last few months. Reading, listening to, and talking about poetry may not offer a cure, but can provide a break with routine that is different from the usual kinds of assistance on offer and, on occasion, lift the spirits of those who often feel a strong sense of disconnection from the world around them.

I phone Doris. She is 83, lives on her own, and needs a wheelchair to go out. She fell and injured herself quite badly last Christmas and then, just as she was ready to go outside, lockdown happened. I ask her how things are; maybe Richard, who does some caring for her, has taken her to the gardens of her complex, but maybe not. Most of the time, she responds cheerfully to my inquiries, but it is evident that she is finding it tough. I ask whether she wants to read some poetry; this is the main purpose of my call. Every week I post Doris a poem and every week—Monday mornings promptly at 11—after I have read it out aloud over the phone, we talk about it.

I know Doris from when she attended a weekly group meeting at a Hackney library, run by a national charitable organization called The Reader, which is committed to the idea that reading literature can enhance well-being. Now, of course, such meetings no longer run. Instead of sharing a Wordsworth sonnet or a poem by Carol Ann Duffy around a large table with several elderly local people, some who suffer from mild mental impairment or are socially isolated, we are forced to rely on individual phone calls. Video would obviously be better, but Doris is on the wrong side of the digital divide, and so the phone it is.

Yet even with the phone, it’s possible to sense someone’s response to a poem—sometimes emotional, as certain lines bring back a memory or touch a feeling, and sometimes something more cerebral, when certain words trigger thoughts and ideas that weren’t present before. Of course, some poems resonate more than others, and although I think carefully about my choice, you can never really tell which ones will go down the best.

John Donne’s “No Man Is an Island” would seem mainly to be about the importance of recognizing how interconnected we all are—and Doris understands that—but something about that tolling bell in the line, “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee,” troubles her, maybe suggesting intimations of mortality. On other occasions, a poem—in this case, “All Things Pass” by Lao Tzu—will cause her to reflect on the value of being able to accept what life presents us with and the difference between how we imagine it will turn out and the reality. Do I detect a sense of disappointment with her husband, whom she told me in confidence that she married relatively late when she wasn’t expecting to marry?

It`s not all plain sailing, of course. There are occasions when I should like to push Doris a bit, to encourage her, for example, to recognize that traveling can have value by altering your perspective on things. So, while she enjoys Robert Browning’s “Home Thoughts From Abroad” for its confirmation that home, in her case a flat in east London, is the best place to be, she refuses to acknowledge that our appreciation of the comfort and security it offers might be intensified by some time away from it. Or there is the time, when we are talking about Margaret Atwood’s “The Moment,” which asks us to recognize the illusory nature of ownership, when she insists that, of course, she owns the furniture in her apartment. However, who knows whether, after we stop talking, Atwood’s unusual, disconcerting line of thought will leave traces in her mind and begin to persuade her that the idea of ownership is a little more complicated than she first imagined? Poetry sometimes takes time to do its work.

On the other hand, there are phone conversations about a poem when the main thing I sense is simple enjoyment. I knew, from one of our earlier chats, about Doris’s fondness for elephants—a glass cabinet in her living room is chock full with models of the animal. So when I chose D.H. Lawrence’s “The Elephant is Slow to Mate,” I guessed she would like it even if I was slightly worried about how she would respond to its explicitness. Unfazed by the references to mating—she has seen and heard it all, she tells me—here was a chance for her to talk about the origins of her interest in elephants and wildlife, show off her knowledge of elephants, and to talk about what the elephant can teach us about the value of going slow—especially at a time when that’s what many of us have to do. Perhaps Doris also sees a link between the way her disability limits her mobility and the elephant’s aversion to speed.

Lawrence’s celebration of the creature in all its massiveness and delicacy, as well as all the other poems we have talked about over the last few pandemic months, open up a space—a ‘holding space,’ to use Philip Davis’s words—for memory, reflection, thinking, and, I suppose, just pleasure.

I know the calls I make might be thought of as a form of social work. After all, elderly people such as Doris, who have been forced to undergo weeks on weeks of isolation on top of all the other problems weighing down on them, may well be in real need of human contact. But I should also like to believe that hearing poems read aloud and talking about them in a personal way—a way that is often quite different from the way they are discussed in the classroom—provides something more. Here is an opportunity to reflect on life and perhaps see the world from a somewhat different angle. Mostly, the feedback is very positive; after all, what’s not to like?

— Mike Peters is a retired teacher and adult education tutor who is a volunteer with The Reader, a national charity in the United Kingdom with a mission to improve people’s sense of well-being through the shared reading of literature.