2016 / Friday

Dyslexia and poetry: words that wear a high vis vest

Shamin Fernando

Pulitzer Prize winner, poet Philip Shultz uses the creative right side of his brain

Pulitzer Prize winner, poet Philip Shultz uses the creative right side of his brain

Dyslexics are people, too. Photograph by Jamison Wieser, used under Creative Commons licence

Dyslexics are people, too. Photograph by Jamison Wieser, used under Creative Commons licence

“My mother would read comic books to me at night,” says Philip Schultz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007. “I had a tutor and that wasn’t working, so I realised I’d have to teach myself,” he adds, laughing briefly.   He’s chatting on the phone from the New York Writers’ Centre, where it’s late afternoon.  How did he manage to teach himself to read? He laughs.   “Out of frustration I imagined a little boy who could read.”  His voice rises with the memory.  “I tried to imagine what it would be like not to feel stupid and to be able to read and I created a persona that wasn’t me.”

Dyslexia is a word derived from the German prefix “dys”, meaning a difficulty with words -“lexia” from the Greek. It is not a disease but a term used to describe disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpreting words, letters and other symbols. A paradox exists in the fact that despite this difficulty some great writers are dyslexic, including some notable poets. Few people know, for example, that WB Yeats, who won the Nobel Prize for Poetry in 1923, was dyslexic and more recently poet Philip Schultz chronicled his struggles with the condition in his memoir, My Dyslexia.

New research suggests that memorising and reciting poetry can be useful for dyslexics learning to read. A study conducted by reading expert Dr Frank Wood, of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina, examined a group of six-year-old dyslexics. The children were made to memorise and recite the Longfellow poem, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. The study found that they made progress in both reading comprehension and fluency after reciting the poem daily for several weeks.

Brian Byrne, Professor of Psychology at the University of New England, supports the finding. “There is evidence that most people can read words with high visual imagery quicker than abstract ones. The particular value for dyslexics has to do with the rhyming and alliteration that is more common in poetry than prose, which can help draw attention to the sound elements of language, which are the basis of the alphabetic code.”

However, learning, to read didn’t come easily for Philip Schultz. He not only had trouble reading but he hated school, skipped classes and was held back two years. He assumed he wasn’t smart and that was the reason he and a couple of other students in his class were relegated to the “dummy table” behind the teacher, effectively isolated from the other children.

Despite suffering these difficulties early on, he managed, with the help of a devoted mother to teach himself to read.

People with dyslexia learn more from a creative perspective, not a logical one. Dyslexia Australia’s most current definition of the condition describes it as: “The capacity to differently process information, enabling innovative thought and perception. It is characterised by a visual and experiential learning style. With specific and alternative teaching methods dyslexics are able to realise this capability and minimise learning disabilities commonly developed by conventional teaching methods.”

A visual thinking style is widely acknowledged to characterise dyslexia. It provides dyslexics with access to powerful images and metaphors. By visualising things in their heads they are able to come up with different words, analogies and associations which may be new, apt and surprising.

Sometimes what is referred to as the visual thinking gift is not exactly accurate – images, emotions, bodily feelings may be involved – rather than just a photographic impression. Similarly, dyslexics are said to have an ear for the sound of language. They connect with the musicality of words and phrases. As they often learn to read late and read very slowly, they don’t lose the sound of language as they think about it. This is another ability conducive to writing poetry.

Philip Schultz refers to the fact that dyslexics are found to operate using the right side of the brain. He says in a quiet voice, “You know, decoding language and learning, all that I couldn’t do, but the other part of the brain, the imaginative, creative part of the brain is vibrant.”

While average people have certain skills – spelling, early reading, reading aloud, rapidly recalling memorised texts, and remembering the correct order of the alphabet – the dyslexic has other gifts that are more particularly suited to good writing. These include perceptiveness, humour, feeling and an ability to see analogies.

In his blog, In the Mind’s Eye, the Dyslexia Renaissance, Thomas G. West claims, “In recent years some researchers are discovering that the particular formation and wiring of dyslexic brains may lend itself to retaining information mainly in story form. These same wiring patterns may also create a tendency to make connections between distant and apparently unrelated things, producing fresh and unexpected metaphors and similes.”

One such interesting and significant image is used by WB Yeats in some of his later works. The image is that of the “gyres”. These are two cones, one inverted inside the other. It was used by the poet to represent the principle of inverse proportion or reciprocal action. That is, the idea that as one thing increases as another diminishes and vice versa.

Not that his great poems and figurative language came easily. In an excerpt from his autobiography, he describes his education. “I was unfitted for school work. My thoughts were a great excitement, but when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a balloon in a shed in a high wind.”

This same struggle results in the dyslexic being prone to ponder. They read slowly and have difficulty doing anything automatically. So their engagement is deep and considered. Again this is useful for poetry.

Philip Schultz says, “Poetry, if it’s good, is concentrated, and it demands a very strict kind of attention. And I do that naturally, because I read so slowly, I read carefully. And poems are short, shorter than prose and I read a poem closely and will connect to it.”

Not only can a dyslexic engage deeply with a poem but, as readers and poets themselves, they may take on the role of an “outsider” as a result of  being ridiculed or bullied because of their learning difficulties.

“Sometimes that negative learning experience overwhelms them and it’s hard to experience success,” says Brenda Baird of Dyslexia Australia. This role as “outsider” is a position commonly held by artists and poets and affords a unique and detached observational perspective.

In light of the strengths of dyslexics, some describe their condition as a gift rather than a disability. Brenda Baird says, “To say flat out that dyslexia is a gift would be to ignore my fellow dyslexics who are still suffering the pain and trauma from their learning experience. There is nothing wrong with our brains. The problem is the way we are expected to learn to read.”

Linguistic hijinks were the order of the day yesterday when poets David Malouf and Paul Muldoon presented One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, an unforgettable hour of poetry, rumination and conversation at the Roslyn Packer Theatre.

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