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The gifts of poetry and Down syndrome



After a few dramatic weeks in Australian and world news, 21 March came as a relief. It hosted special days that attended to less dramatic but no less deeply human concerns. They commemorated Down syndrome and poetry.

Michelle and Stevie Payne in 2014 (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)In conversation about Down syndrome two opposed judgments are usually heard. One sees it as pitiable and a burden on parents and society that ideally would have been eliminated by discovering the condition early and terminating the pregnancy. This view is not new. It was held in many ancient cultures.

The other view sees people with Down syndrome as a gift to be treasured. Through them we learn and celebrate what is deepest in our humanity. They bear the image of the King in their dignity as unique and precious human beings.

The latter view was on show when Michelle Payne won the 2015 Melbourne Cup on the long-shot Prince of Penzance. Even the many thousands of people who had lost their money on the race were delighted at the unbridled joy they saw in Stevie, Michelle's brother and strapper, who has Down syndrome. They responded to the love that bound him to his sister and family, and to his patent joy in the skill he brought to his work.

He, like so many people born with Down syndrome, has clearly been as great a gift to his family as they are to him. They, like many other families, may see his condition as a gift. A very testing gift, certainly, one which will also sometimes be experienced by the person and their families as a burden, but will also be prized as a gift that deepens all those touched by it.

It makes available large and simple words that ring true only when tested by hard experience. Words like goodness and generosity that call into question the conventional wisdom that people's value can be measured by their contribution to the economy, by their intelligence, their articulacy or their wealth and status.

In the company of people with Down syndrome we may be teased into softening the hard edges in our relationships which make plausible such calculating assumptions. We see that love makes notable people who may seem at first sight marginal, recognises a gift that may lie hidden, and enables us to celebrate wholeheartedly the simplest and apparently most inconsequential aspects of our relationships.  That discovery of a simple humanity in turn can bring a greater benefit to society than any professional or economic success we may have.


"Tyrants, who are usually expert in doing the numbers, often fear poets because they cut through the shallow, the cheap and the brutal."


Coincidentally, Down Syndrome Day is also World Poetry Day. The two days run together well. Poetry, too, is about recognising depth and value in people, the world and our experience, which we could easily dismiss as ordinary and even useless. It encourages us to attend carefully to the music behind the notes, to struggle to catch words for what lies beyond words, to find beauty in the apparently nondescript, pattern in the apparently random, and depth in the apparently trivial.

Poetry also challenges any idea that real value can be measured and calculated, and that we can judge the worth of people by their intelligence, their achievements and their wealth. By any quantitative criteria writing and reading can be assessed as an unprofitable and inefficient use of time.

Although poetry may be useless, however, it is valuable. Tyrants, who are usually expert in doing the numbers, often fear poets because they cut through the shallow, the cheap and the brutal. We need only think of Stalin and Osip Mandelstam. He feared poets as he feared doctors: both quietly notice symptoms that others miss.

Like people whose lives are touched by Down syndrome, poets can also tease out the threads of complex relationships between vulnerability and gift. Australian poet Francis Webb, who suffered from mental illness, caught beautifully the depth of humanity in the most vulnerable of human beings, whether himself or a new born child. He reflects on holding a five day old child at Christmas time: 'If this is man, then the danger / And fear are as lights of the inn, / Faint and remote as sin / Out here by the manger. / In the sleeping, weeping weather / We shall all kneel down together.'

To devote the same day to reflection on both Down syndrome and on poetry, though probably unintended, was a very human thing to do. Precisely because the one is so commonly regarded as a defect and the other as an idle activity, we need to be reminded that both are a gift. In times of tumult, violence and declamation they recall us to the simplicities and the depth of being human.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Michelle and Stevie Payne in 2014 (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Down syndrome, poetry



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew for reminding us that "eternal life is to know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" is present inviting us and moving our hearts to respond in awe to the latent presence of the Divine incarnate in the Down syndrome, in the enchanting smile of a beautiful face and in all that moves us to delight in the mystery in whom we are graced to live.

Terry Cobby | 27 March 2019  

Thank you for an unusual, lovely and welcome piece of writing. Recently at the end of a day in an ordinary house in a Bayside suburb, I sat with two people with Down Syndrome. As is usual in the house - one of two l’Arche houses in Melbourne - we ended the day around a lit candle and a time of quiet prayer - prayers of thanks, regret and concern. The Lord’s Prayer. And then, spontaneously, the young woman places her hands on my head in blessing and begins the gentlest and truest of shared blessings. As a member of the L’Arche community in Melbourne, I can attest to the beauty and gift of those with Down syndrome - and those with other intellectual disabilities - whose generous and loving spirits call out for, and invite me into honest, honest relationship. And it is not easy. In the beauty, life is and can be hard. Acknowledging that is to see each other - ‘each of us broken, each of us loved’, a song we often sing together at our monthly gatherings - as whole human beings. If poetry is one of the most exhilarating, incisive and demanding ways to come to terms with life’s ultimate issues then it is well matched on the 21st March with grateful reflections for those who live with Down Syndrome.

Fiona Winn | 27 March 2019  

Lovely piece, Andy. Made me cry.

Michael Furtado | 27 March 2019  

A great angle. Thank you Andrew.

Mark Stack | 28 March 2019  

Lovely article. Brought a smile to my morning train ride. And much needed.

Andrew Del Marco | 28 March 2019  

Both are indeed great gifts from God. Thank you

Julie Weber-O’Bryan | 04 December 2019  

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