My long-time friend and fellow writer Chris Peditto stopped by for a visit yesterday. The day was cold and rainy here, and he was complaining about the gardening challenges of cutting back and cleaning up after the big ficus tree, date palms, and bougainvillea around his Echo Park home. I kind of envy him the bougainvillea, though.
Our conversations ranged over many subjects–art, music, poets, friends–but one story he related stays with me today. Early in 2010, after some surgery, Chris lost his ability to speak, read, and write. A poet, avid reader, reviewer, teacher of rhetoric and writing, the irony of that loss did not escape him; and he was determined to regain his ability to communicate. Reading and writing returned fairly quickly, but the speech deficit hung on. He told me that as he lay in bed recuperating, and frustrated, he tried to figure out a way to get his speech back. How had he learned to speak in the first place, more than 50 years earlier? Could he return to that process?
“I sat up in bed and recited ‘Humpty Dumpty,'” Chris said, “And it all came through. Every word. And understandably, too.”
From that point onward, he incorporated poetry into his speech practice and therapeutic exercises. His observation is that what we learn by heart–and he stresses the metaphor there, of the heart doing the “knowing”–integrates more thoroughly, makes up the much-touted “mind/body connection.” Poetry, he stresses, has speech-rhythm and pulse-rhythm. He uses daily recitations of poems to help improve the speech he has regained.
We talked for four hours, so I’d say he’s regained his speech. He doesn’t feel satisfied with the gains yet, because he still slurs and sometimes can’t pronounce a word without a couple of tries. He isn’t giving up; and what a joy his daily practice is! For while he varies his oral readings when he practices poetry, he always begins with this Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, one he’s known by heart for decades, and on which note I will leave my readers:
Spring and Fall: To a Young Child
Márgarét, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.