Thank You, Virgil Thomson

One of the pleasures of reading is the discovery of a superior voice, one you’ve been waiting for even if you’d no idea you’d been anticipating it. In my case the aesthetic affirmation comes from Virgil Thomson who’s polemical essays on music and everything else are original and beautifully “unlike” as the best writing should be. Consider this little nugget from his essay 
“Our Island Home, or What It Feels Like to be a Musician”:

“Among the great techniques, music is all by itself, an auditory thing, the only purely auditory thing there is. It is comprehensible only to persons who can remember sounds. Trained or untrained in the practice of the art, these persons are correctly called “musical.” And their common faculty gives them access to a secret civilization completely impenetrable by outsiders.

The professional caste that administers this civilization is proud, dogmatic, insular. It divides up the rest of the world into possible customers and non-customers, or rather into two kinds of customers, the music-employers and the music-consumers, beyond whom lies a no man’s land wherein dwells everyone else. In no man’s land takes place one’s private life with friends and lovers, relatives, neighbors. Here live your childhood playmates, your enemies of the classroom, the soldiers of your regiment, your chums, girl-friends, wives, throw-aways, and the horrid little family next door.”

This is, if not sidesplittingly funny, arresting enough and if you, like me, labor at a university (or any other professionalized but provincial arena) you know all about the dogmatics of professionals and the “everyone else community” or no man’s (or woman’s) land of private life.
If you don’t buy records or books, you are, according to the professional caste, just another prole. Reader: I went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and all I can say is this is spot on. As for the horrid little family next door it’s probably safe to say everybody hates them.

What’s delightful about Thomson is his candor about the no man’s land. Musicians and composers can make perfect art if they don’t tire of their trades. But then:

“Private life, on the other hand, is beset by a thousand insoluble crises, from unrequited love to colds in the head. Nobody, literally nobody, knows how to avoid any of them. The Christian religion itself can only counsel patience and long-suffering. It is like a nightmare of being forced to execute at sight a score much too difficult for one’s training on an instrument nobody knows how to tune and before a public that isn’t listening anyway.”

Mark Twain couldn’t say it better. (See Twain’s vision of heaven where no angel can play its instrument….)

That’s a delicious pronoun reference—“it is like a nightmare” points of course to private life but it picks up magnet-like, the almost witless patience of the church.

The poet in me loves the following:

“Everything the poet does is desperate and excessive. He eats like a pig; he starves like a professional beauty; he tramps; he bums; he gets arrested; he steals; he absconds; he blackmails; he dopes; he acquires every known vice and incurable disease, not the least common of which is solitary dipsomania.

All this after twenty-five, to be sure. Up to that age he is learning his art. There is available a certain amount of disinterested subsidy for expansive lyrical poetry, the poetry of adolescence and early manhood. But nobody can make a grown-up career out of a facility for lyrical expansiveness. That kind of effusion is too intense, too intermittent. The mature nervous system won’t stand it. At about twenty-six, the poets start looking around for some subject-matter outside themselves, something that will justify sustained execution while deploying to advantage all their linguistic virtuosity.”

Thank you Virgil Thomson. Thank you!

I have indeed however tried to make a grown up career out of a facility for lyrical expansiveness. As for solitary dipsomania, well….

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

We’ve got a problem, Iowa

I was in graduate school in the early 1980’s when literary theory became the star of the show. Where once literary criticism was the circus ring master (examining how texts are constructed and the themes within them) now asserting literature was subservient to cultural forces beyond a writer’s control was the new normal. The writer was dead. There were no writers at all. There was only destructive, pejorative, propagandistic language layered like a hundred mattresses atop each other—the artist formerly known as the writer far beneath like the proverbial pea.

Now the term theory is considered noble in a scientific age and its application to literature was meant to confirm the seriousness and high purpose of textual analysis. But it was also a move toward speciminizing primary texts—rendering novels, poems and drama smaller—Emily Dickinson had no idea what she was doing, she was a paramecium of sorts, but don’t worry, the theorist professor would tell you about the petri dish with its agar of cultural forces beyond the ken of the Belle of Amherst.

Beware the primary text.

By the time I was teaching in the graduate nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa in the late 2000’s I had students who’d been through the theory mills. The problem was apparent: they’d no idea what a text was made of. They could only say how it related to dominant cultural forces. “What’s a scene?” I asked on day one. (From their transcripts I knew that my dozen students had attended Yale, Columbia, Berkeley, Swarthmore, and the like.) No one could venture a guess. Their silence was something more than silence—it was the quiet below the coffin.

Now a literary scene is a basic building block of narrative. If a room filled with graduate chemistry students was asked what’s the composition of salt and they couldn’t answer—well you get my point.

Scene by scene construction is central to fiction, drama and nonfiction. By asking the question I wasn’t being cheeky.

Not one of them could describe salt.

“Iowa, we have a problem.”

In the weeks that followed I labored to show them how scenes work. “A scene,” I said, “can be a sentence or a full chapter in “War and Peace.”

“In its essence,” I said, “a scene is a unit of language in which we see a human being or an environment being acted upon or revealed—whether modestly or grandly.”

I could tell some of them didn’t see why it mattered but a few took notes.

I showed them scenes.

“Great Expectations”

“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”

“Roughing It”

“We had fifteen passengers, and to show how hard pressed they were at last for occupation and amusement, I will mention that the gentlemen gave a good part of their time every day, during the calm, to trying to sit on an empty champagne bottle (lying on its side), and thread a needle without touching their heels to the deck, or falling over; and the ladies sat in the shade of the mainsail, and watched the enterprise with absorbing interest. We were at sea five Sundays; and yet, but for the almanac, we never would have known but that all the other days were Sundays too.”

“Silas Marner”

“In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses—and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak—there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race. The shepherd’s dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag?—and these pale men rarely stirred abroad without that mysterious burden. The shepherd himself, though he had good reason to believe that the bag held nothing but flaxen thread, or else the long rolls of strong linen spun from that thread, was not quite sure that this trade of weaving, indispensable though it was, could be carried on entirely without the help of the Evil One. In that far-off time superstition clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted, or even intermittent and occasional merely, like the visits of the pedlar or the knife-grinder. No one knew where wandering men had their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother?”

**

Scenes are not just extensions of mood or prosaic establishments of tone: they tell us how human beings are caught in the act of behaving and how that behavior is often an extension of their surroundings.

In the literary universe of theory the only important thing is to explain how people became poor in the first place or how Twain’s characters are colonial tourists or how industrial capitalism makes Eliot sentimental.

Not one of these opinions has anything to do with creative writing as an art form.

Imagine sending students to music school knowing only that the violin is merely the product of the historical need for higher tunings.

By speciminizing primary texts the theorist disables literary writing.

Volition is action following deliberation. Both are facets of wish. They are the two wings of the imagination.

Literary theory scoffs at the imagination’s volition by saying it is merely “intentionality” which means a pipe dream since no writer can be original when she’s inherited a fallen language, a polluted idiom, a word hoard of varnished propaganda.

You see how this works? The imaginative writer is just the wriggling thing in the dish.

In turn many MFA students today have little recourse but to engage in ironic play—the self is unreliable, the forms of literature (scarcely understood) are undependable, the paintbrush (writing the scene) is tedious. Today’s students are taught that the deadening effects of culture are a worthy subject and the smallest self is a good story. Moreover exposition has a larger place at the table in creative writing than it’s ever had before. By this I mean the writer interprets her narrator or characters rather than writing scenes.

Here’s the opening paragraph from a recent novel that’s received some positive attention, “Juliet the Maniac” by Juliet Escoria:

“It is hard to tease out the beginning. When I was living it, my disintegration seemed sudden, like I had once been whole but then my reality swiftly slipped apart into sand. Not even sand, but slime, something desperate and oozing and sick. But looking back—I was a slow burn that eventually imploded.”

This simply isn’t good writing but its the standard in a world where students are taught cultural theory before scenes.

Here’s another example, the first paragraphs of Rebecca Makkai’s new novel “The Great Believers”:

“Twenty miles from here, twenty miles north, the funeral mass was starting. Yale checked his watch as they walked up Belden. He said to Charlie, “How empty do you think that church is?”
Charlie said, “Let’s not care.”
The closer they got to Richard’s house, the more friends they spotted heading the same way. Some were dressed nicely, as if this were the funeral itself; others wore jeans, leather jackets.”

Compare the above to writing that takes us “into” the place and circumstances of people—the beginning of Toni Morrison’s novel “Home”:

“They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood.
We shouldn’t have been anywhere near that place. Like most farmland outside Lotus, Georgia, this one here had plenty of scary warning signs. The threats hung from wire mesh fences with wooden stakes every fifty or so feet. But when we saw a crawl space that some animal had dug—a coyote maybe, or a coon dog—we couldn’t resist. Just kids we were. The grass was shoulder high for her and waist high for me so, looking out for snakes, we crawled through it on our bellies. The reward was worth the harm grass juice and clouds of gnats did to our eyes, because there right in front of us, about fifty yards off, they stood like men. Their raised hooves crashing and striking, their manes tossing back from wild white eyes. They bit each other like dogs but when they stood, reared up on their hind legs, their forelegs around the withers of the other, we held our breath in wonder. One was rust-colored, the other deep black, both sunny with sweat. The neighs were not as frightening as the silence following a kick of hind legs into the lifted lips of the opponent. Nearby, colts and mares, indifferent, nibbled grass or looked away. Then it stopped. The rust-colored one dropped his head and pawed the ground while the winner loped off in an arc, nudging the mares before him.
As we elbowed back through the grass looking for the dug-out place, avoiding the line of parked trucks beyond, we lost our way. Although it took forever to re-sight the fence, neither of us panicked until we heard voices, urgent but low. I grabbed her arm and put a finger to my lips. Never lifting our heads, just peeping through the grass, we saw them pull a body from a wheelbarrow and throw it into a hole already waiting. ”

I’m of an age now when I can lament with discernment the erosion of serious literary writing in my time. I saw how it got started in the English departments of the ’80’s and have seen while teaching in top tier MFA programs how the effects are winning out. If you can’t write a scene you can’t know substantive literary consciousness which engages with the land, the eyes, the mistakes, the aspirations, the getting lost, the micro luck, and the depth psychology revealed in acute awareness.

Specimization indeed.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Who Are the Blind Poets? Hmmmm.

A friend asked me “who are the blind poets other than Milton, Homer, and Borges?” The question is interesting because it assumes blindness is static and cleanly historic in a biographical sense. At the moment he asked I made a joke and said there’s me. And I mentioned Dan Simpson a blind poet in Philadelphia who is supremely talented. But the question evades its precise answer. Samuel Johnson was blind; James Joyce was also. We don’t think of them this way. Why not?

Dr. Johnson had several disabilities—he was tourettic, had seizures, was legally blind (though the term didn’t exist in his day) and prone to severe bouts of depression. Like me, he could remember everything he read for the pain of reading was profound and you better get it right the first time. This is what made him the right man to craft the first English dictionary. Moreover, when he attended a theatrical production, though he couldn’t see the stage, he remembered every syllable.

Joyce’s eyes were a source of lifelong agony:

“Worsening inexorably over his lifespan of sixty years, the eyes of Joyce were the main source of his misery. It was a feat of preternatural breadth, his undertaking of literary labours via a shroud of painful blindness. Joyce’s struggle with his eyes led him to naming his daughter Lucia, after St Lucia, patron saint of the blind. A scrutiny of him as a young man attests to his longsightedness – his glasses magnify the Irish-blue eyes. The wearing of such spectacles is notable because it reveals that Joyce had eyes of a crowded shape : anatomy which increases the risk of high pressure developing in the eyeball. Ordeals of the ophthalmic type began in youth, but inflammation in Joyce’s eyes (rather than pressure) was the initiator of his sufferings in 1907.”

This is of particular interest:

“Oculists were consulted to assuage the agony. But those attending to him could not acceptably douse the flames. To curb the flammatory pain from his eyes the doctors injected Joyce with arsenic and phosphorus. Since these dosings were inefficacious they would apply a fistful of leeches to his scalp. Ill-advisedly, he had his teeth extracted, on the strength of some advice which ascribed his ocular ills to the bacteria in his mouth. Surgery of the eye was performed and the series between 1917 to 1930 comprised iridectomies, sphincterotomy, capsulectomy, and a removal of cataracts.”

By the time Joyce wrote Ulysses he had ten percent vision in one eye and none in the other.
He carried a cane, not because he was a dandy but because he was afraid of obstacles and dogs.

**

Again one has to ask why aren’t Dr. Johnson and James Joyce understood as being great blind writers?

Performativity comes to mind—Borges was lead around by a sighted guide. Milton was read to by his daughters. These are accepted blind representations. That Joyce traveled and Johnson rambled the dark streets with disreputable friends doesn’t fit the trope of the helpless blind.

As of this morning, this is my answer.

For the full article on Joyce’s eyes see:

https://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d7464/rr-0

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

The Original American Good Man: Walt Whitman Discovers Disability

As we honor the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman it’s worth recalling the poet who praised the human body was also our nation’s first writer of disability memoir. This often surprises people since his great opus “Leaves of Grass” famously celebrates strapping health. In fact one may say Whitman turned physical desire into a sexy religion: America’s body was ecstatic, eternal and spiritually orgasmic. In Walt’s nation there were no bad couplings. That was Whitman circa 1855. Then came the Civil War.

One response to crisis is the making and shaping of a new imaginative body. In his seventies, and having suffered paralysis from a series of strokes, Whitman began collecting, arranging, and then supplementing his civil war prose written while he served as a nurse in the terrible army hospitals in Washington. Revisiting his old journals, their pages literally blood stained, he worked both with his paralysis—he could barely write—while giving shape to a historical moment of national crisis. In effect, Whitman created the first American disability autobiography.

His response to social and personal crises is expertly detailed in a marvelous essay by Robert J. Scholnick entitled, “‘How Dare a Sick Man or an Obedient Man Write Poems?’ Whitman and the Dis-ease of the Perfect Body.” This essay appears in the breakthrough collection, Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities edited by Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson.

Scholnick examines Whitman’s early positioning of the healthy body as a metaphor for a strong democracy and shows how the poet used disability to represent political failure as America headed into the Civil War. Referring to Whitman’s unpublished 1856 essay “The Eighteenth Presidency!” Scholnick notes that Whitman is: “Expressing his belief that a healthy body is a metonym for a healthy nation and, the converse, that an enfeebled body reflects a failure within the body politic…” (248). Scholnick correctly observes that Whitman, who is writing about the political failure of the Buchanan presidency to stop the spread of slavery into the western territories resorts to disabling metaphors:

…[Whitman] deployed a rhetoric of health, disease, and disability to address the national crisis. Describing the supposedly enfeebled political class as “blind men, deaf men, pimpled men scarred inside with the vile disorder, gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people’s money,” in “The Eighteenth Presidency!” he summoned what he imagined as a generation of vigorous young men to take charge. “Poem of the Road” (later titled “Song of the Open Road”) warned that “None may come to the trial till he or she bring courage and health” (Leaves 232). (248) Scholnick observes that Whitman’s disabling metaphors are balanced by a call not just to political health in the United States, but also by a prescriptive exhortation to America’s citizens to practice the art of good health:

Whitman’s urgent summons to his fellow citizens to adopt the practices of healthy living constituted a significant portion of his agenda for America. “All comes by the body only health puts you in rapport with the universe,” he wrote in “Poem of Many in One” (later titled “By Blue Ontario’s Shore”). “Produce great persons, the rest follows,” he affirmed (181). “Poem of the Road” stated flatly, “He travelling with me needs the best blood…” and warned that only the healthy are eligible to join him in the great American procession. (249)

Scholnick quotes Whitman in “Poem of the Road:

Come not here if you have already spent the best of yourself! Only those may come who come in sweet and determined bodies, No diseased person no rum- drinker or venereal taint is permitted here. (249)

In turn, Scholnick details Whitman’s reified and “schizoid” body politic:

In promoting physical health as a means of fostering national stability, control, and improvement, Whitman excluded those lacking the best blood. This exclusion raises the question of just how he and his contemporaries understood the etiology of sickness and disability. (249)

Robert Scholnick’s essay explores how the language of Whitman’s later notebooks displays the poet’s alteration from rhetorical inattentiveness about the disabled body to a position of cultural empathy. By ministering to the maimed and dying soldiers, Whitman faced unimaginable physical suffering. The poet’s prose reveals Whitman’s new and profound appreciation for the literal suffering of men and the spiritual suffering of the nation.

I agree with Scholnick that Whitman is the progenitor of the “disability memoir.” He created a new and wholly conscious rendering of altered physicality in prose. Whitman begins his reminiscence (which he called “Specimen Days”) in a wholly new mode. This is not the metaphorized body of the ideologically constructed man of robust, democratic labor:

Specimen Days

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 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. (1298)

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” (4).

It’s interesting in this context to note that Whitman imagines his paralysis as part of the unfolding drama of family loss as well as the national trauma of the civil war:

1873. — This year lost, by death, my dear dear mother — and, just before, my sister Martha — the two best and sweetest women I have ever seen or known, or ever expect to see. Same year, February, a sudden climax and prostration from paralysis. Had been simmering inside for several years; broke out during those times temporarily, and then went over. But now a serious attack, beyond cure.

Dr. Drinkard, my Washington physician, (and a first-rate one,) said it was the result of too extreme bodily and emotional strain continued at Washington and “down in front,” in 1863, ‘4 and ‘5. I doubt if a heartier, stronger, healthier physique, more balanced upon itself, or more unconscious, more sound, ever lived, from 1835 to ’72. My greatest call (Quaker) to go around and do what I could there in those war-scenes where I had fallen, among the sick and wounded, was, that I seem’d to be so strong and well. (I consider’d myself invulnerable.) But this last attack shatter’d me completely. (1297-1298)

One notes Whitman’s use of military metaphors to describe the onslaught of paralysis: the disease “broke out” and “then went over” –figures that suggest the illness has scaled the healthy wall of his body, the fortress of self. It’s interesting also to note that Whitman arrives at this correspondence between his paralysis and the national trauma of the civil war by way of his doctor who believed that the strain of working in wartime hospitals was the likely cause of Whitman’s stroke.Describing his youthful and healthy body Whitman writes, “I doubt if a heartier, stronger, healthier physique, more balanced upon itself, or more unconscious, more sound, ever lived, from 1835 to ’72” (1297-1298).

By distinction Whitman as the writer of lyric prose is no longer unconscious and balanced but self-conscious and obviously unbalanced. This “imbalance” is reflected by the unevenness of the memoir. Sentences read like fragments. Memories and the contemporary circumstances of the writer are narrated “paratactically” –the past and the present are presented side by side.

One is reminded of the contemporary American poet Gregory Orr’s assertion that:

…our instability is present to us almost daily in our unpredictable moods and the way memories haunt us and fantasies play themselves out at will on our inner mental screens. We are creatures whose volatile inner lives are both mysterious to us and beyond our control. How to respond to the strangeness and unpredictability of our own emotional being? One important answer to this question is the personal lyric, the ‘I’ poem dramatizing inner and outer experience. (4)

In the case of Whitman’s lyric prose this instability links with the art of memory to address the very meaning of the lyric self: the self that possesses comic irony—a self that understands it is a shaped thing. It can be shaped by personal or physical suffering or by social forces. Whitman ends “Specimin Days” by speculating about the divine or philosophical nature of suffering:

Just as disease proves health, and is the other side of it. . . . . . . . . The philosophy of Greece taught normality and the beauty of life. Christianity teaches how to endure illness and death. I have wonder’d whether a third philosophy fusing both, and doing full justice to both, might not be outlined. (1300)

Here Whitman, writing in paralytic bursts, wonders about the construction of normalcy and its origins in stoic philosophy Then in one swift lyric shift, he wonders about the Christian view of illness, a view which leads in Western civilization to the so called “medical model” of disability. This is the “I” of lyric prose, working its way through inner and outer experience. The “I” of lyric prose assembles its greater sense of irony from scraps.

Whitman’s lyric prose is more than the short hand for a self help book. The prose he wrote in crisis lead him away from his early figurative representations of the muscular
democratic body. He wrote in the civil war hospitals on pages stained with the blood of dying soldiers. He wrote fast and he wrote about something larger than ideological metaphor:

FALMOUTH, VA., opposite Fredericksburgh, December 21, 1862. — Begin my visits among the camp hospitals in the army of the Potomac. Spend a good part of the day in a large brick mansion on the banks of the Rappahannock, used as a hospital since the battle — seems to have receiv’d only the worst cases. Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket. In the door-yard, towards the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel-staves or broken boards, stuck in the dirt. (Most of these bodies were subsequently taken up and transported north to their friends.) The large mansion is quite crowded upstairs and down, everything impromptu, no system, all bad enough, but I have no doubt the best that can be done; all the wounds pretty bad, some frightful, the men in their old clothes, unclean and bloody. (712)
In the Preface to Leaves of Grass Whitman wrote, “All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain” (11). As the writer of lyric prose Whitman writes:
I must not let the great hospital at the Patent-office pass away without some mention. A few weeks ago the vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers. They were placed in three very large apartments. I went there many times. It was a strange, solemn, and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight. I go sometimes at night to soothe and relieve particular cases. Two of the immense apartments are fill’d with high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention, it ever enter’d into the mind of man to conceive; and with curiosities and foreign presents. Between these cases are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide and quite deep, and in these were placed the sick, besides a great long double row of them up and down through the middle of the hall. Many of them were very bad cases, wounds and amputations. Then there was a gallery running above the hall in which there were beds also. It was, indeed, a curious scene, especially at night when lit up. The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot — the suffering, and the fortitude to bear it in various degrees — occasionally, from some, the groan that could not be repress’d — sometimes a poor fellow dying, with emaciated face and glassy eye, the nurse by his side, the doctor also there, but no friend, no

relative — such were the sights but lately in the Patent-office. (The wounded have since been removed from there, and it is now vacant again.) (717-718)

Think of Whitman writing after a series of strokes, revisiting his old notebook pages, tying them together with seasoned reflections on his diminished body. By gathering “Specimen Days” and arranging its pages, Whitman claimed disability—both for himself as well as the civil war veterans. Claiming disability requires claiming the lyric. 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 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.
Twice then we see Walt Whitman, lacking a sufficiency of time, writing the lyric claim.

Citations:

Orr, Greogry. Poetry As Survival. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2002.
Scholnick, Robert J. “‘How Dare a Sick Man or an Obedient Man Write Poems?’ Whitman and the Dis-ease of the Perfect Body.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Ed. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Rosemarie Garland-Thomas. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2002. 248-259.
Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
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Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Please Mister, Stop Appropriating the Poor Cripples, Or, “The Blind Girl’s Sponge”

1.

A new novel appears; gets lots of praise; about a man who suffers a facial deformity and whatever passes for his inner life is destroyed. You guessed it: the author isn’t disabled. But he’s used a tried and true formula: deform a character and you can cover up your own literary deficiencies. Or nearly. Kafka understood this but his grotesqueries were about capitalism and not about individuals.

2.

In the airports, train stations, public byways, strangers approach and say unbidden things to me owing to my blindness. “I had a dog once,” they’ll say. Or: “I knew a blind girl once.” When I”m feeling charitable I think of their loneliness and let the intrusive moment go. When I’m more vituperative I’ll say anything to get out of the situation. “What dog?” I’ll say. Or: “I don’t like blind people.”

3.

You can only appropriate people you don’t understand. Notice I didn’t say, “insufficiently understand” because even maladroit and speculative thinking is better than incurious meddling. And that’s what ableist appropriation of disability is. Anthony Doerr has written a wholly fraudulent disabled character in his award winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See” (a title so stupid “that” alone should have killed it.) His charming blind girl can’t bathe herself though she’s something like fourteen. Her father (who is the author of course) has to help her. I think Doerr should have called the novel “The Blind Girl’s Sponge.”

4.

Now women writers do their own incurious meddling. There’s currently a very popular woman poet who writes of “grotesques” with enough whimsey to satisfy the ableist appetites of the creative writing academy. While I”m at it, let’s be clear that writers who hail from every kind of background write ableist junk. Feeling unimaginative? Just throw in a cripple or two. Two cripples will always be better than one. Beckett understood.

5.

“What’s the problem?” you say? “They’re just books.” You’re right. And Philip Larkin was right: “books are a load of crap.” And there’s more than one problem anyway. But Robinson Crusoe and Friday represent the unassailable comfort of appropriative culture. Novels are seldom progressivist. If you can get away with it, have three cripples in your coffee table book.

6.

In her new book “Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing” Claire McEachern writes: “Even among person, plot, and place there exist differing expectations with respect to believability.” Her premise is that believing in characters is essentially a sacramental act. Read her book. It’s excellent. She writes:

“Persons are also found in nature as well as art; we can believe in each other, as well as in literary characters, the former suggesting the trust we confer on another ’ s purpose, the latter trust in an author ’ s conjuration. Sociobiology, anthropomorphism, and the sciences of empathy all suggest that humans are especially susceptible to each other; as philanthropic organizations know, a cause with a face is more difficult to shrug off than one without. 3 Prosopopoeia has long been the rhetorical figure employed to supernatural or political abstractions, endowing them with human-sized motive properties. Stories whose ultimate concern may be systemic or institutional identities or corporate fortunes (e.g., the fate of a nation, a race, or a culture) typically phrase their exempla in the unit of the individual. There is something particular about the person. Perhaps it is easier to believe in a literary person because less belief is required. People are people persons.”

7.

Prosopopoeia is just the thing, the ingredient you need if you want to turn real people into cartoons. Where disability is concerned Shakespeare was also a cultural appropriator. Caliban’s deformities come from Montaigne’s imagined ugly cannibals but no matter, you’ve got stock characters who will obediently and without controversy represent whatever imperial disdain you need to employ.

It has always been my contention that the first fully realized disabled character in Western literature is Melville’s Ahab. And though he’s not likable, he’s complex and understandable.

Which brings me back to my original point: the average ableist writer doesn’t need to know Ahab at all. He or she watches the cartoons.

I Live in No Country

I spent a dark month translating poetry in the far north and the poems followed me into sleep. Saarikoski’s snakes talked to my dream ears. I don’t always remember dreams but the snakes stayed with me. They followed me in the department store and came with me on the bus. I thought perhaps I should change my name to Asklepios. I also considered the bones inside the snakes. Those glassine springs with their electricities and appetites.

**

If you’re a reasonable woman or man or child you know you belong to no country.
This is the thing—poetry’s reification if you will—I belong in no room, no meeting, no tent.

**

The saddest poets are the ones who keep trying to put up a tent when there isn’t any rain in the forecast.

**

Walking early today thinking of Immanuel Kant, his a priori intuition and the elegance of reason. The snakes’ skeletons still following me down the street.

George Washington, the Onondaga Nation, and Robert Bly

Its Presidents Day or it was, I can’t remember. The television is trying to sell me a couch by raising a photo of George Washington above a love seat. Because I teach at Syracuse University which stands on land that belongs to the Onondaga Nation I wince. It was Washington who ordered the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans in the Finger Lakes. Our principle “founding father” was responsible for a vast human rights crime–what we would now call genocide. I do not make polemical pronouncements. This butchery is a matter of history. Washington called for a “scorched earth” policy which left no village standing and very few survivors. I live among their descendants. I know full well what was done to their ancestors. When I change the channel the TV is trying to sell me a car. Again there’s Washington. I hold my head.

I’ve been reading the newly published “Collected Poems” of Robert Bly. Here are some lines that come to mind:

“Hatred of Men With Black Hair”

“I hear voices praising Tshombe, and the Portuguese
In Angola, these are the men who skinned Little Crow!
We are all their sons, skulking
In back rooms, selling nails with trembling hands!

We distrust every person on earth with black hair;
We send teams to overthrow Chief Joseph’s government;
We train natives to kill Presidents with blowdarts;
We have men loosening the nails on Noah’s Ark.

The State Department floats in the heavy jellies near the bottom
Like exhausted crustaceans, like squids who are confused,
Sending out beams of black light to the open sea,
Fighting their fraternal feeling for the great landlords.

We have violet rays that light up the jungles at night, showing
The friendly populations; we are teaching the children of ritual
To overcome their longing for life, and we send
Sparks of black light that fit the holes in the generals’ eyes.

Underneath all the cement of the Pentagon
There is a drop of Indian blood preserved in snow:
Preserved from the trail of blood that once led away
From the stockade, over the snow, the trail now lost.

Excerpt From: Robert Bly. “Collected Poems.” Apple Books.

**

From Washington’s slaughter of the five nations to Trump’s wall…Bly’s poem still reverberates.

Now Washington is trying to sell me a set of home appliances.