Dying Poets Society

Is there beauty in Alzheimer’s disease? Yes, say ASU poets who work with dementia patients. But can you be a poet and not know it?

As Lyle and Manolis chat, Ella continues to pour spices onto the table, mushing them with water and paper towels into a runny papier mâché. Frederick announces that the sage smells like stuffing, then says he has to go. "My time is kind of limited." He pretends to get up, then sits back down and laughs. He made a joke.

A moment later, Frederick is sad. "Tomorrow I won't remember your visit," he says.

Manolis shuts her notebook, cleans up Ella's mess, puts the lids back on the spices, puts the spices back in the bowl and lingers at the table for a few more minutes. A skinny woman in a red sweat suit walks slowly toward the table, roughly rubbing her crotch, which rustles loudly with the sound of a plastic adult diaper. She sits at the table and dips her hand into the bowl of Manolis' spices. Manolis waits for her to finish, then picks up the bowl, says her goodbyes and takes the spices home.

Carol Smith introduces her elderly students to everything from Mapplethorpe and Picasso to dinosaurs and bugs.
Carol Smith introduces her elderly students to everything from Mapplethorpe and Picasso to dinosaurs and bugs.
Poet Trish Murphy uses old postcards to start conversations with her students.
Paolo Vescia
Poet Trish Murphy uses old postcards to start conversations with her students.


William Arnold -- the ASU communications professor who does Alzheimer's research -- has never observed one of Karla Elling's poetry workshops. But he's firm in his opinion that people in the later stages of Alzheimer's are incapable of writing poetry. Sure, the workshops are valuable to Alzheimer's patients, he maintains -- as valuable as pet therapy or a sing-along.

"The benefit is to give them contact, to nurture whatever is left," Arnold says. "When an infant cries, they get attention. They get cared for, they get held. And all too often, Alzheimer's patients, when they're getting back to the latter stages, don't get that. If the infant can recognize and get comfort, then it seems to me that probably the Alzheimer's patient can, too."

If they can't judge or even remember what they have written, is it poetry?

"I write poetry all the time," Arnold says." Sometimes it rhymes and sometimes it doesn't, and I guess the only value is to me. And unfortunately, I think for the Alzheimer's patient, they may not be able as I am able to sit down and like what I do or dislike what I do. They can't like or dislike what they do because they probably don't even remember they did it."

Trish Murphy, one of the poets working on the book about the workshops, disagrees with Arnold's notion that the patients aren't poets. She acknowledges that her "students" don't consider themselves poets. She tells them she has come to write poetry with them, transcribes what they say, then reads it back as poems.

"They're surprised, and they're not always all that impressed, either," she says, laughing.

But the best poetry is accidental, she says, or at least unintentional.

"I think that so much around us is poetry," says Murphy, who teaches in ASU's creative writing program. "Can you be a poet without knowing you're speaking in poetry? Definitely. Can you talk to other people and hear poetry that isn't even there, when they speak? Yes! That's how people fall in love -- or have one-night stands."

Salontai, the young poet who struggled with the workshops, tells of a session working with spices so that the patients could smell them and touch them and talk about what memories they evoked. A woman named Gladys was in the group.

"I had a bay leaf, and it had a hole toward the top of it. And I was looking at it, and I'm like, "Oh, this is kind of cool,' and she grabbed it and she was looking at it.

"And she just said, "Culinary archery.'"

The poets plan to make it the title of their forthcoming book.


Karla Elling makes it clear that her priority -- her mission, in fact, as director of a creative writing program -- is to create an enriching experience for the ASU poets. It has worked.

Tracy Trefethen, who helped James discover his saxophone playing, says the workshop was one the best experiences of her 11 years as a teacher. She was so into it, she felt like she had Alzheimer's. Couldn't find her keys, her purse, the door.

After James died, Trefethen and her partner intermingled their journal entries with the words of James and other workshop participants, creating a performance art piece, which included a poem Trefethen wrote about the experience:

I am seeing pink
louvered windows and baskets
of plants hanging from
wrought iron, slow fans and
the dim yellow light on bodies
drawn with sweat.

I think how watery it is
to work with them . . . so many
loose connections, loping
around, catching at one
another in my head . . . to
describe being with them
alters it and that is what
it is like to be with them
To get altered, fluid leaping
loosing threads, leaping and
loosing until the very notion
of loss is altered. It is
What is.
I think I have fallen
in love with that crotchety
old coot.

Learning has taken the poets to darker places, too.

Trefethen says that in the last week of her workshop, the poets ventured into dangerous territory: death. They brought in animal skins and bones and asked the patients what they thought about death.

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