To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, November 1, 2010

Michael Davidson: On a Poetics of Disability

[The following, from Davidson’s pioneering essay “Missing Larry: The Poetics of Disability in Larry Eigner,” was an opening to an area of poetic concern previously outside the range of critical consideration. It later appeared in his Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body (University of Michigan Press, 2008) & is echoed by much else in Davidson’s ongoing contributions toward a new & vitalized poetics. The full essay is available on-line at, & underlying the poetics are key works of poetry such as The Prose of Fact, The Landing of Rochambeau, & The Arcades from the 1980s & 1990s. It’s worth noting too, as a followup to Davidson’s opening sentence, that 2010 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.]

how to dance
sitting down
(Charles Olson, “Tyrian Business”)

The year 2000 marked the tenth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, an event commemorated in June by a twenty-four city relay by disabled athletes and activists. The torch for this relay arrived in Southern California, carried by Sarah Will in a jet ski on Venice Beach. After handing the torch to another disabled athlete, Will was lifted into her wheelchair to join a trek down Venice Boulevard to the Western Center for Independent Living. Although some disability activists might criticize the triumphalist character of this celebration––crippled athletes hitting the beach in jet skis––the event’s climax at an Independent Living center was a fitting destination for persons who came out of various medical closets in the 1960s and began living together in communal spaces and public housing. The Center for Independent Living is, coincidentally, the same venue that brought the poet Larry Eigner from his home in Swampscott, Massachusetts, in 1978 to live in Berkeley, California, where he spent his last years.

The passage of the ADA in 1990 capped three decades of activism by persons who, for physical or psychological reasons, had been denied access to public buildings, insurance policies, housing, medical treatment, signage, education, marriage, sexuality, and childbearing––not to mention legal representation and respect. Activism on their behalf began in social movements of the 1960s, but unlike anti-war, feminist, and civil rights struggles, the disability rights movement has not–until recently––received the same attention by historians of civil rights, This silence is odd since the disabled community cuts across all demographic, racial and class lines and, potentially, includes everyone. It may be that the very pervasiveness of disability contributes to its marginal status as a rights claiming category.

There are a number of reasons why the subject of disability is often omitted in the roster of 1960s social movements, although this absence is being corrected in a number of recent books dealing with disability history. Civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s could invoke long traditions of advocacy going back to antebellum abolitionism; the anti-war movement grew out of pacifist and anti-imperialist politics of the nineteenth-century; feminism grew out of suffragism and the labor movement. Disabled persons, however, were treated as medical “cases,” best kept out of sight, their wheelchairs, braces, and oxygen tents sequestered in hospitals, clinics and asylums. Individual disabilities were treated independently of one another, balkanized by separate regimes of treatment, therapy and social service. Social support often came from charity movements and parental groups that reinforced a paternalist ethos of the disabled person as innocent victim or child rather than fully vested citizen. Nor was the disability community unified in its goals and social agendas. Persons with occasional or non-apparent disabilities may choose to pass in able-bodied culture and refuse the protections of social legislation; someone who loses sight late in life may lack the same institutional and cultural support as someone blind from birth; Deaf persons often do not want to be viewed as disabled, preferring to see themselves as a linguistic minority; persons with cognitive or developmental disabilities are often separated from those with physical impairments. Forging alliances among such disparate populations was, needless to say, difficult for early disability rights activists who sought coalitional formations across medical lines yet honored material differences among separate disabilities.

Beyond these factors, there were economic disincentives to recognizing disability as a civil right since redress required pro-active investment in infrastructure modification, technologies, sign language interpreters, transportation and other accommodations. Providing ramps and elevators for wheelchairs, TDDs, and braille signage would cost businesses money, and many legislators felt that federal funds should not be spent when private philanthropy could serve the same function. As Lennard Davis points out, both the political left and right perceived the disabled body as “unproductive,” which, in a world based upon instrumentality and capitalization, was not a basis upon which class analysis or public policy could be forged.). As I suggest in chapter seven “universal design” means more than ramps for wheelchair users or “talking” traffic signals for deaf persons; it implies breaking the hold of stigma in order to examine the ways in which a rhetoric of normalcy infects social attitudes and thwarts the forming of community. Recently, one of my colleagues who is active in the field of minority rights complained about the university administration’s insensitivity to diversity: “It was like talking to a deaf person,” he said, linking authorities who won’t listen to people who can’t. The idea that the deaf are “dumb,” in any sense of that term, is precisely the stigma that needs to be erased if alliances between traditional civil rights based on class, race, gender, and sexuality are to be forged with disability.

Which is why a poetics -- as much as a politics -- of disability is important: because it theorizes the ways that poetry defamiliarizes not only language but the body normalized within language. A poetics of disability might unsettle the thematics of embodiment as it appeared in any number of literary and artistic movements of the 1960s. This same thematics was shared with the New Left in its stress on the physical body as localized site of the social. Whether in feminism’s focus on reproductive rights, youth culture’s fetish of sexual liberation, cultural nationalist celebrations of “race men,” or the anti-war movement’s politics of heroic resistance, the healthy, preferably young body becomes a marker of political agency. Within the world of art, this same emphasis on a normalized body emerged through a set of imbricated metaphors––gesture, breath, orality, performance, “leaping” poetry, “action” painting, projective verse, deep image, happenings, spontaneous bop prosody––that organized what Daniel Belgrad has called “the culture of spontaneity” in the 1960s. While a poetics of embodiment foregrounds the body as source for artistic production, it nevertheless calls for some unmediated physical or mental core unhampered by prostheses, breathing tubes, or electric scooters.

What would happen if we subjected a poetics of embodiment to the actual bodies and mental conditions of its authors. What would it mean to read the 1960s poetics of process and expression for its dependence on ableist models, while recognizing its celebration of idiosyncrasy and difference? By this optic, we might see Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman not only as confessional poets but as persons who lived with depression or bi-polar disorders, for whom personal testimony was accompanied by hospitalization, medicalization, and family trauma. What would it mean to think of Charles Olson’s “breath” line as coming from someone with chronic emphysema exacerbated by heavy smoking? What if we added to Audre Lorde’s multicultural description of herself as a Black, lesbian, mother, “sister outsider,” a person with breast cancer (as she herself does in The Cancer Journals)? Robert Creeley’s lines in “The Immoral Proposition,” “to look at it is more / than it was,” mean something very particular when we know that their author has only one eye. To what extent are Elizabeth Bishop’s numerous references to suffocation and claustrophobia in her poems an outgrowth of a life with severe asthma? Robert Duncan’s phrase “I see always the underside turning” may refer to his interest in theosophy and the occult, but it also derives from the poet’s visual disorder, in which one eye sees the near and the other far. Was William Carlos Williams’s development of the triadic stepped foot in his later career a dimension of his prosody or a typographical response to speech disorders resulting from a series of strokes? It is worth remembering that the signature poem of the era was not only a poem about the madness of the best minds of the poet’s generation, but about the carceral and therapeutic controls that defined those minds as mad, written by someone who was himself “expelled from the academies for crazy.” And if we include in our list the effects of alcoholism and substance abuse, a good deal of critical discussion of 1960s poetry could be enlisted around disability issues.

I am not suggesting that a focus on the disabled body is the only way to read postwar poetry, but it is worth noting that its poetics of embodiment brought a renewed focus on the vicissitudes of hand and eye, musculature and voice, as dimensions of the poetic. The salient feature of poetries generated out of Beat, Black Mountain, New York School, Deep Image and other non-formalist poetries was a belief in the poem’s registration of physiological and cognitive response, the line as “score for the voice,” the poem as act or gesture. Charles Olson’s assertion that “Limits / are what any of us / are inside of” speaks as much for the creative potential of the disabled artist as it does for the American self-reliant hero of his Maximus Poems. Perhaps it would be more balanced to say that the self-evident status of a certain kind of body has often underwritten an expressivist poetics whose romantic origins can be traced to a tubercular Keats, syphilitic Shelley and Nietzsche, clubfooted Byron, and mad John Clare and Gerard de Nerval.

1 comment:

wanderer and vagabond said...

read the entire piece...
touched a chord
somewhere within
what it could be
I try to find out
The more I
Look for
The more I go