Disability, Poetry, and Local Despair

antique wheelchair



It is a commonplace in academic circles, or more specifically in university English departments to assume that poetry is just the tonic if your life is gray. Now let us be clear and say that for “gray” the professors mean a conventional life. And by this they mean something less clear though seeing as how “conventional life” is a metaphor one can look to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland” and see that conventional life is mercantile, filled with spiritual doubt, urbanized, and flooded with bad weather.

Accordingly the English departments believe if you read poetry deeply, and Lo! should you deign to write poetry you will be acquainted with the twin perils of modern sentience and a deep, collective psychological distress–a dual acquaintanceship for which poetry is not quite the solution but it’s the best you can get.

Poetry is the blues and the study of poetry is much ado about the blues.

Charles Baudelaire struck the tone by the mid 19th century by addressing death:


“Verse-nous ton poison pour qu’il nous reconforte!

Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brule le cerveau,

Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?

Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!”

Here is a translation by Richard Howard:


“Pour us your poison, let us be comforted!

Once we have burned our brains out, we can plunge

to Hell or Heaven–any abyss will do–

deep in the Unknown to find the new!


One needn’t be a student of theology to sense the odd combination of anguish, fear and delight that marks Baudelaire’s tone. Modern poetry embraces the relativism of despair, a position tied to novelty–the poet tells the reader to keep moving, keep dancing, anywhere is better than here. The 20th century Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelof puts the matter this way:


“Vad jag menar

vad jag vill

ar nagonting annat

alltid nagonting annat–“


“What I mean

What I want

is something else

always something else–“

(translated by Leonard Nathan and James Larson)


One can go to the library and pull at random books of poems from the shelves and find endless variations of these two quoted passages for after the 19th century poetry is about what I’m going to call “the phenomenological death bed”–that is, mentation, the life of the mind becomes after the industrial revolution a metaphor of death or illness. While all poetry from the beginning of song has contended with death and dying the difference is that modern poetry suggests that to stray from hopelessness is to display a naive innocence. Despair is experience itself, one need imagine no further.   


If modern poetry says the life of the mind is immobilized by despair then it follows naturally that the body must become a figure of exhaustion and of paralysis. Corporality is reduced to imprisonment. In a famous poem by the great 20th century Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo we see the figure of a tarantula that has been badly injured, the halves of its body wrapped around a sharp stone. The poet watches the poor creature with great intensity and writes:


“Con tantos pies la pobre, y aun no puede

resolverse. Y al verla

atonita en tal trance,

hoy me ha dado que pena esa viajera.”


“With so many feet, the poor thing, and still it cannot

solve it! And seeing it

confused and in such great danger,

what a strange pain that traveler has given me today!”


(translated by Robert Bly)


In short, paralysis and the mind are one.  This is a modernist idea. I’m arguing that this figuration does not exist prior to the 19th century. It is no coincidence that disability becomes a profound social and economic problem at precisely the same moment that the modernist poets conceive of mental life as entrapment. By the 20th century the body is entirely a figure of despair. And since as any English department will tell you, figure leads to figure. The body as prison is merely a figure for an eternity of meaninglessness. In a poem by the contemporary American poet Thomas Lux (a poet I admire) we see the post-mortem body offered the appetites of eternity:


“–your non-body gorging

all it ever wanted on earth,

all it ever wanted on earth,

now never hungry,

never sated.”

Just as figure leads to figure, figuration, the metaphorical application of the things blows backwards into the mind: we are bodily without signs of the body’s meaning or the body’s hope. I believe along with Lennard Davis (one of the leading figures in the field of disability studies) that the 19th century created the social narrative of normalcy. This movement toward the veneration of normal height, weight, intelligence, physical appearance, and physical capacity happens as the industrial revolution creates newly powerful nation states. This normative body as ideal body occurs almost overnight in human affairs.

Just so, we can argue (as Davis does) that the impaired body becomes both an economic and aesthetic problem with the advent of the industrial revolution.

What’s interesting is that the body, the broken one, the paralyzed one, becomes the figurative repository of middle class alienation in what is essentially a simultaneous move. Real disability is erased by a newer symbolic one, one that has nothing to do with the ordinary failure of lenses and nerves but is emblematic of spiritual failure in the age of normative economies.

The normal man, not liking his tea and his spoons and rather depressed about it is figuratively impaired.

Now if you go across town to the local school board you will hear parents and school administrators talking, however inelegantly and haphazardly about why their children should not be normal. By this they mean “above the mean” for the collective thinking is all about the 19th century bell curve (as Davis has pointed out rather deftly.)   

The harm in all of this is that children with special needs are figuratively emblematic of spiritual failure in the age of normative economies. The same parents who want extra programs and services for their exceptional children will often argue against tax dollars for exceptional special education. Why? Because the social narrative of normalcy and even our poetry tell us that being broken is simply a matter of spirit. And if you go across town to the university English department you might well hear the same thing, offered a bit differently, but akin in purpose, figuration being what it is. Doesn’t that ailing body represent the modern mind in its collective fatigue? Do not our poets tell us that the seal of despair is a matter of our very bodies? And surely, trapped as we are in this fly to amber figuration of normative metaphor, surely we still must cheer for all who are exceptional at the expense of–well, you know. Of course we oughtn’t say so.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s