For all of my adult life, I have felt connected to poetry. I started as a poet, then became a poetry publisher, then worked as a literary presenter, and am now here at the Poetry and Literature Center. And so, when PBS NewsHour shot the first segment for the Laureate’s second-year project a few weeks ago, I was surprised—by how much the moment made me realize anew the power of the art, and realize how rewarding it is to champion.
The shoot, for a segment on a Brooklyn-based group called the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project (APP), realized what I have long known: that poetry plays a crucial role in the lives of people, in uniquely personal ways. I will never forget the image of Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and APP founder and Project Director Gary Glazner, reciting lines of Wordsworth along with a group of children—and inside a circle of Alzheimer’s patients, who were reciting the lines too. The next day, another image: the same group of patients, this time with their caretakers, all reciting the Lucille Clifton poem “why some people be mad at me sometimes” along with the Poet Laureate, on the steps of the Prospect Park boathouse. In both cases, the rhythms of the poems, and their revelations, took on a heightened meaning with the group reciting them. To me, they felt like a stay against the inevitable loss such patients and their caretakers must experience. And it was an experience of recitation that connected generations to the life-affirming joy of a language that sings—in the intimacy of a classroom or the lush openness of a public park.
This segment is the first for the Laureate’s project, and it will air tonight on the NewsHour—there is already a one-minute teaser up. I greatly look forward to the next shoots and segments—six are planned for Natasha’s second term. Those two days with the APP have already changed my life—or rather, they showed me that all the arguments against poetry seem to miss the point. And the point is something I can’t quite explain. It has something to do with why I fell in love with poetry in the first place—how it seemed to showcase the beauty and difficulty of reckoning, and the power of such work to battle silence. Gary Glazner, the Poet Laureate, the NewsHour crew, the young children, and the Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers—we all spoke together as one.