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Bob Holman & Margery Snyder

The Rhyming Cure

By October 28, 2006

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The source of a poem’s power & beauty often lies in the borderlands between everyday spoken language & the specialized linguistic tools & tricks taught in poetry workshops. Poetry uses rhymes & other kinds of word-patterns to work its effects on its hearers, its readers and its speakers, too. So why are we not surprised to learn that a disorder which robs its victims of the ability to speak can be cured by the repetition of nursery rhymes?

That is exactly what happened to Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. For a year & a half, he suffered from what is called “spasmodic dysphonia” -- a mysterious neurological disorder in which the connection between the brain & the vocal apparatus is disrupted, so that the person cannot speak. Often, victims can still sing, or even speak in completely different contexts, while they cannot carry on a conversation at all. The disorder was thought to be completely incurable, but just this week, Scott Adams managed to reconnect his brain & his power of speech when he discovered that he could talk when saying a nursery rhyme, and that repeating the nursery rhyme permitted him to take the next step & speak normally. Poetry is good for you!

from The San Jose Mercury-News:
Hampered by rare syndrome, Dilbert cartoonist talks again,” by Rachel Conrad (AP)
from The San Francisco Chronicle:
Dilbert’s creator gets his voice back,” by Erin Allday

and from the source himself, Scott Adams on his Dilbert blog:
“Good News Day”
“...I noticed I could speak perfectly in rhyme. Rhyme was a context I hadn’t considered. A poem isn’t singing and it isn’t regular talking. But for some reason the context is just different enough from normal speech that my brain handled it fine.

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.
Jack jumped over the candlestick.
“I repeated it dozens of times, partly because I could. It was effortless, even though it was similar to regular speech. I enjoyed repeating it, hearing the sound of my own voice working almost flawlessly. I longed for that sound, and the memory of normal speech. Perhaps the rhyme took me back to my own childhood too. Or maybe it’s just plain catchy. I enjoyed repeating it more than I should have. Then something happened.... My brain remapped.... My speech returned.”

Related resources:
Our library of nursery rhymes

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