–“Life is a hospital where every patient is obsessed by the desire of changing beds.”
–Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen
What can we learn from poetry about the body and the culture of bodies? Is what we see in a poem merely a figurative illustration of extrinsic historical or political truths or can a poem create a new and unforeseen nexus of identity and consciousness? As scholars concerned with the social construction of disability identity we know instinctively that the answer to the question is determined by our own rhetorical stance toward figuration. A poet is Aristotelian if she’s aiming to look beyond history for the subject of her poem. A poet is essentially Platonic if she is working in the service of verisimilitude. These categories aside we know that Ezra Pound was echoing Aristotle when he said that the poet is “the antennae of the race”. The Aristotelian imagination probes in the unknown space ahead and reports back to the great segmented worm of culture.The poet Richard Wilbur writes: “The mind is like some bat/ Beating about in caverns all alone/ Trying by a kind of senseless wit/ Not to conclude against a wall of stone.” Poetry is instinctive, far-seeing in its peculiar interiority, re-constructing the world that surrounds it. This vision of poetry holds that figurative language is exploratory, (neo)constructionist, progressive, lyrically alive.
Again Baudelaire: “It always seems to me that I should be happy anywhere but where I am, and this question of moving is one that I am eternally discussing with my soul.” One can say that lyric poetry in general is concerned with moving as an operation that defies analysis. The soul is always the totem of irresolvable and competing desires. In poetry the soul is a synonym for the reliquary; it is a place. We position the furniture of our suffering in the soul’s room. But the lyric insists there is life outside the hospital–life beyond the ward. Notice that lyric poetry concerns itself with containment. One can add adjectives that work well with suppression: abject containment, unaware containment, irrational containment—disability studies scholars will recognize this impressionistic terrain as inherently akin to the historic figurative language of disability—the lyric concerns itself with the conditions of individual abjection and is always therefore a fit medium for exploring disability awareness. The modernist Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo wrote the following lyric in the 1930’s as Italy was descending into Fascism:
And Suddenly It’s Evening
Each of us is alone
At the center of the earth,
Pierced by a ray of sunlight,
And suddenly it’s evening.
I don’t know of any more beautiful cris de couer from the Age of Existentialism. My feeling is that lyric discord, rendered almost always in figurative darkness represents the creation of what the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung referred to as “individuation” a state where the conscious and unconscious modes of thought are brought into harmony. The condition of the mind in such poems is fearful, repressed, circumscribed, and lost. The lyric mindscape is blindness whether the poet behind the poem is literally blind or not. The lyric occasion does not represent blindness. It merely works from the epistemological and psychic locus of blindness. I do not mean figurative blindness but the very real step-by-step navigation of the unknown. The urgencies of perception are necessarily reckoned with care.
Claiming disability (Simi Linton’s term) is to claim the lyric. In turn the lyric is the mode of poetry that best resists the falsifications of narrative imprinting. If people with disabilities have been exiled by history, by the architectures of cities and the policies of the state, then the lyric and ironic form of awareness is central to locating a more vital language. The exile that belongs to oneself,/the interior exile…(Richard Howard) We claim disability by lyric impulse. And by lyric impulse we rearrange the terms of awareness. The lyric mode is concerned with momentum rather than certainty. This is the gnomon of lyric consciousness: darkness can be navigated. The claiming of disability is the successful transition from static language into the language of momentum. But of particular importance in this instance is the brevity of the lyric impulse. The urgency of short forms reflects the self-awareness of blocked paths and closed systems of language. The lyric reinvents the psychic occasion of that human urgency much as a formal design in prosody will force a poet to achieve new effects in verse. Igor Stravinsky put it this way: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution. We are in a hurry. We must tell the truth about the catastrophe that is human consciousness. And like Emily Dickinson who feared the loss of her eyesight we will tell the truth but “tell it slant”—the lyric writer may not have a sufficiency of time.
Poetry about the body looks beyond the constraints of physicality. The lyric is in this manner a metaphysical pursuit. William Blake’s sick rose is the mandala of consciousness:
O rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
The body is not our own. In lyric time the body is faced with the urgencies of the Elizabethan memento mori. This self-awareness we describe in terms of the body is equivalent to what disability advocates refer to as the condition of being “temporarily abled” but it’s useful to understand this condition as a crucial circumstance of imaginative and spiritual consciousness.
One thinks of T.S. Eliot’s narrator in “Gerontian”: “I an old man,/A dull head among windy spaces.” How should consciousness proceed in the company of the failing body? This has always been the lyric occasion. In her booklength poem an Atlas of the Difficult World Adrienne Rich writes:
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.
Lyric consciousness is “stripped” consciousness. The word is menacing because the world is invariably opposed to youth, sexual freedom, multi-racial identities, disabilities, the poor…
In Adrienne Rich’s poem momentum and the deciphering of language are equivalent. The lyric occasion demands a larger future because it is the epistemological equivalent of the alphabet—
a new alphabet, one acquired in transition or in pain. Emily Dickinson thinks of this epistemological circumstance as an equation:
I reason, earth is short,
But what of that?
I reason, we could die:
The best vitality
Cannot excel decay;
But what of that?
I reason that in heaven
Somehow, it will be even,
Some new equation given;
But what of that?
The lyric intelligence is Emersonian, ”transcendental” and concerned with instinctual knowing. Lyric poetry is not inherently opposed to materialism or the body—but neither is it concerned with the body as the figurative representative of spiritual or divine perfection. The broken body is as good as the one without blemish. But what of that? In this view the body is not a vehicle of transcendence. The lyric is akin to Emerson’s “other half” of man—the mind beyond the body’s confining narrative preoccupations with the establishment of a representational self.
As it became a component of English departments the discipline of creative writing began to be understood as the teaching of craft. But the signature work of contemporary poetry has been concerned with the narrative constraints of identity politics and the languages of social enforcement. Poets as diverse as W.S. Merwin, Gregory Orr, Adrienne Rich, Olga Broumas, Primus St. John, Patricia Goedicke and hundreds of others have turned the lyric impulse toward the (re)visioning of social and intellectual freedom. It seems right that in “claiming disability” the work of poets should occupy more than passing interest to the emerging field of disability studies.
In turn the crucial question is “What can (re)visioning suggest in disability terms?”
Walt Whitman is the progenitor of the “disability memoir.” His discovery of lyric prose, first as a hospice nurse, and then as a man experiencing paralysis represents the creation of a wholly conscious rendering of altered physicality in prose. Whitman begins his reminiscence in a wholly new mode. This is not the metaphorized body of the strapping, ideologically constructed man of robust, democratic labor:
A HAPPY HOUR'S COMMAND
Down in the Woods, July 2d, 1882. — If I do it at all I must delay no
longer. Incongruous and full of skips and jumps as is that huddle of
diary-jottings, war-memoranda of 1862-'65, Nature-notes of 1877-'81, with
Western and Canadian observations afterwards, all bundled up and tied by a big
string, the resolution and indeed mandate comes to me this day, this hour, —
(and what a day! what an hour just passing! the luxury of riant grass and
blowing breeze, with all the shows of sun and sky and perfect temperature, never
before so filling me body and soul) — to go home, untie the bundle, reel out
diary-scraps and memoranda, just as they are, large or small, one after another,
into print-pages. (Whitman 689)
This is the lyric Whitman, the disabled poet working to shape and re-shape his memories as well as his present circumstances. He does so with fragments, jottings, things untied, things untidy, nature notes, bureaucratic memoranda… He is announcing his intention to create a “lyric collage” –and by announcing that this is for the printed page he is also announcing that this is a work of art, one created out of a new urgency.
Here is Whitman again, writing of his increasing paralysis and its effect on his ways of living:
Quit work at Washington, and moved to Camden, New Jersey — where I have lived since, receiving many buffets and some precious caresses — and now write these lines. Since then, (1874-'91) a long stretch of illness, or half-illness, with occasional lulls. During these latter, have revised and printed over all my books — Bro't out "November Boughs" — and at intervals leisurely and exploringly travel'd to the Prairie States, the Rocky Mountains, Canada, to New York, to my birthplace in Long Island, and to Boston. But physical disability and the war-paralysis above alluded to have settled upon me more and more, the last year or so. Am now (1891) domicil'd, and have been for some years, in this little old cottage and lot in Mickle Street, Camden, with a house-keeper and man nurse. Bodily I am completely disabled, but still write for publication. I keep generally buoyant spirits, write often as there comes any lull in physical sufferings, get in the sun and down to the river whenever I can, retain fair appetite, assimilation and digestion, sensibilities acute as ever, the strength and volition of my right arm good, eyesight dimming, but brain normal, and retain my heart's and soul's unmitigated faith not only in their own original literary plans, but in the essential bulk of American humanity east and west, north and south, city and country, through thick and thin, to the last. Nor must I forget, in conclusion, a special, prayerful, thankful God's blessing to my dear firm friends and personal helpers, men and women, home and foreign, old and young."
In lyric terms this prose is necessary to assure the poet’s survival. Gregory Orr’s useful polarities of lyric incitement come to mind: Whitman is experiencing “extremities of subjectivity” as well as the “outer circumstances [of] poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one.” As Orr points out: “This survival begins when we "translate" our crisis into language–where we give it symbolic expression as an unfolding drama of self and the forces that assail it” –see Orr's insightful book "Poetry of Survival" the most elegant analysis of crisis recast as fragmentary immanence.
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