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:
Barnes and Noble

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 

Of Book Tours, Antonio Gramsci, and the Unmade Bed

A friend, characterizing a mutual friend said: “he has a mind like an unmade bed” and trust me that’s how I’m feeling. Of the unmade bed I recall an episode of the television version of “The Odd Couple” when Felix discovers a half eaten submarine sandwich in Oscar Madison’s bed. Oscar didn’t say it, but I will: “detritus ye will always have with ye” though one must surely admit when his defenses are down. I’m finding it difficult to concentrate.

This isn’t listlessness. It’s not the blues. (Though I know I’ve got them—a blind guy’s slumgullion of concerns from genetic testing of fetuses (rooting out probable disabled babies, think eugenics 2.0) to the race baiting narratives of American cleanliness espoused by the United States government and increasingly large parts of the industrialized world (Reich 4.0).
Or I worry about your mentally ill brother, child, mother, especially if they’re a person of color, for they’ll likely wind up dead or in jail in our clotted, Dickensian nation. Meanwhile the eroding middle class watches the Kardashians.

OK. Sorry. But when you’re an unmade bed, well, you become that man who natters on the bus. Some mornings I’m a single dendritic spark away from either mumbling or ranting.
My unmade bed is starting to smolder.

I’ve been on a lovely book tour which has taken me to Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Calistoga, Denver, Richmond, and upstate New York. Talking with old acquaintances and new friends is a cleansing experience. I always meet good people on the road.

Check box: I’ve been talking to excellent human beings.

Check box: In Denver I got an Uber ride from a man who lectured me about the “end times” for twenty five minutes. He touched my hair. Said: “you’re already one of the saved. God loves you.”

Check: It’s raining in the airplane burial ground, as my friend Jim Crenner once wrote.

Crumbs from the bed…Marx was right about 40% of the time.

Bed: Antonio Gramsci was right about 80% of the time.

The above assertions are not incompatible.

Check: I’ve lately had several graduate students who don’t like to read and when pushed turn deflective and mean spirited. These are the children of “no child left behind” who’ve been trained for a decade to take tests. Confronted by the prose of Salman Rushdie they look at first perplexed, than hostile.

Crumb: The students mentioned believe they’re commodified, neutralized, oppressed, etc. according to their respective identities. They won’t read for strength. They believe ideology is strength. In this way they’re no more sophisticated than Donald Trump.

It’s a very hard time to be a professor.

Crumb: last night I realized for the 41,000th time that baseball won’t save me.

Check: I don’t care for popular music of any kind.

Ort. (Everyone’s favorite crossword bit)—scientists now believe outer space is filled with carbon molecules which they describe as “grease”—it means we’re essentially living in a vast kitchen drain.

Speck: The poet Donald Hall just passed. He was a good man on balance.

Note: I’m reading Dr King’s Refrigerator by Charles Johnson. Also: The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli.

Speck: the thing about a book tour is you see with sufficient comic irony you’re not terribly important in the grand scheme.

Ort: I once introduced myself to the folk singer Utah Philips. Told him I was an anarchist at heart. He gave me a withering look. It said: “I’m the only god damned anarchist you little shit!”

What was it James Tate said? “No longer the perpetual search for an air conditioned friend….”

My step children are struggling to stay in the middle class.

I’ve a friend who’s lost his health insurance and has no job.

He doesn’t have the leisure for a mind like an unmade bed.

Like most halfway ethical beings I feel guilty.

Is sharing the unmade bed the best thing a writer can do?

That’s mostly what creative writing programs are all about.

The Finnish communist poet Pentti Saarikoski said: “I want to be the kind of poet who builds houses for people….”

Saarikoski was just kidding of course. The way poets do. He never built a house for anyone.

Is the unmade bed a place of ambition or escape. Is it both?

This is the point: I want to create unmade beds for everyone.

Check: we’d take turns being servants. The unmade bed mustn’t be class reserved.

What the hell am I talking about?

I fear for the life of imagination; what we used to call the life of the mind.

A student came to me not long ago and said he wanted to be a writer. Then he told me he hated reading.

I want to be a painter but I hate paint.

I’d like to cultivate my mind but not today.

Gramsci: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

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:
Barnes and Noble

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 AWP, Academic Creative Writing, and the Disabling Ethic of Higher Ed

By now I’ve written a good deal about what it’s like to be disabled and work in higher education. Why return to the subject? What more could I possibly say? First off there’s an important new book “forthcoming” from University of Michigan Press by Jay Dolmage entitled “Academic Ableism” which (from the website): “brings together disability studies and institutional critique to recognize the ways that disability is composed in and by higher education, and rewrites the spaces, times, and economies of disability in higher education to place disability front and center.  For too long, argues Jay Timothy Dolmage, disability has been constructed as the antithesis of higher education, often positioned as a distraction, a drain, a problem to be solved. The ethic of higher education encourages students and teachers alike to accentuate ability, valorize perfection, and stigmatize anything that hints at intellectual, mental, or physical weakness, even as we gesture toward the value of diversity and innovation. Examining everything from campus accommodation processes, to architecture, to popular films about college life, Dolmage argues that disability is central to higher education, and that building more inclusive schools allows better education for all.”

Yes disability is enacted on university campuses as the antithesis of higher education. It’s not merely “a distraction, a drain, a problem to be solved” (though arguably these ableist perturbations remain true) but also a de facto bearding of the noble lion as disablement requires vigorous reexaminations of pedagogy, administrative systems, institutional histories, faculty preparedness, information technology, and what is meant by cultural inclusion. Colleges that do not do these things are most often participating in what Professor Dolmage calls the ethic of higher ed. I should know: I’ve been stigmatized repeatedly throughout my career because my blindness hints at intellectual, mental or physical weakness. I still remember the graduate student in creative writing at Ohio State who dropped my nonfiction writing workshop because I was asking students to read their work aloud. My assistive technology hadn’t arrived yet. My mother died on the first day of class. I invented my time pressed accommodation and gave those students the benefit of twenty years of writing and reading. The woman who quit told a senior faculty member that I was a lousy teacher. Hearing her fellow students read was beneath her. And clearly I wasn’t capable of running a workshop. That student effectively undermined much of my subsequent career at OSU. Although I did receive tenure and ultimately went on to receive tenure at the U of Iowa and Syracuse, the dog whistle followed. It follows because of blindness. The blind, who must do everything differently, are suspect. Are they really reading? (It’s only been 200 years since the blind were conceived of as literate. You shouldn’t think for a minute that old prejudices have vanished. Strangers on public buses offer to pray for me; give me money; imagine I’m destitute.)

The “ethic” is false as practiced and I’ve been put in mind of this all over again by recent developments at the AWP, (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs) the sponsor of the nation’s biggest academic creative writing conference. Each year they manage to humiliate disabled writers by failing to provide basic accommodations, and each year they receive criticism for this, as well as merited approbation for a lackluster commitment to featuring disability related writing at their conference. These are just criticisms and there’s no denying it.

What the AWP “has” is the capacity to stigmatize anything that hints at intellectual, mental, or physical weakness. After fumbling badly with accessibility at their 2017 conference in Washington, DC the leadership of the conference hired a consultant to help them tackle the problem. (Football imagery intentional.) Now the organization has put out the following statement to address the ongoing concern that there’s not enough recognition of disability writing: “We believe the current scope of the conference strikes the best balance between inclusion and good, selective programming.”

Talk about valorization of accentuated taste (read perturbations regarding ability).

Why return to the subject?

I return because I heard a writer at AWP say “that’s not germane to me” when told of a panel on disability and nonfiction writing.

I return because my own university is still struggling to admit the disabled have appropriate and necessary opinions about accessibility problems they continue to encounter on campus.

I return since labels are for jars and not people.

I come back again because most campus accommodation processes are demeaning, stuck all over with red tape, and yes, their very presence signals to faculty and college administrators that the 19th century model of sequestering the disabled is still OK.

And I return because today, right now, even as I’m typing, there are students and faculty and staff with hidden disabilities who are scared as hell to disclose them at their respective colleges and universities.

I can’t convince them they shouldn’t be.

The disabled walk in the same sunlight, even beside the ivory tower.

Perhaps, just maybe we can stop pretending they are “other” and their talents are stealing the goodies from the strapping, healthy taste makers.


“Creative Writing and Disability Studies: Liminal Epistemologies”

–“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,
And angu
ish absolute,
And many
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:

Specimen Days

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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