This marginalization was especially acute in the nineteenth century, when demands for metrical verse were in force. Such requirements so discouraged Deaf poet John Carlin that he considered giving up on poetry. "I was convinced," he wrote, "that I could never be what I so ardently desireda correct writer of verses." Fortunately, the perceptive hearing poet William Cullen Bryant pressed Carlin to continue writing poetry, recommending that he rely on rhyming dictionaries. Carlin eventually published many poems, including "The Mute's Lament" in the first issue of American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb in 1847. However, the hearing editor could not resist adding a note to the poem, marveling:
How shall he who has not now and who never has had the sense of hearing, who is totally without what the musicians call an ear, succeed in preserving all the niceties of accent, measure, and rhythm? We should almost as soon expect a man born blind to become a landscape painter as one born deaf to produce poetry of even tolerable merit.
In addition to this kind of treatment, Deaf poet Laura C. Redden experienced the opposite. That the acclaimed "Howard Glyndon," Redden's nom de plume, was a woman was well-known, but that she was also deaf was not. When critics did learn of the fact, however, many of them lowered their earlier opinion of Redden's poetry. Infuriated, Redden responded with her 1870 autobiographical allegory "Down Low" (later retitled "The Realm of Singing"), in which she portrays herself as a bird with a crippled wing trying to make a place for herself in the fabled Realm of Singing. After some attempts, the bird wins an audience of soldiers passing through the forest on their way home. But when the soldiers discover that the bird is crippled, they abandon her, saying, as did Redden's critics:
"What have we here? A crippled bird that tries to sing? Such a thing was never heard of before. It is impossible for her to sing correctly under such circumstances and we were certainly mistaken in thinking that there was anything in such songs. Our ears have deceived us."
Any reader will agree that a crippled wing has nothing to do with a bird's ability to sing. Yet many will pause before applying this to deafness and poetry. Even some deaf poets themselves were plagued by doubts about their ability to write poetry, or at least "good" poetry that would be respected in the mainstream. Such doubts were, and still are, linked with audism, that is, the beliefimposed by hearing society and internalized by many deaf peoplethat deaf people are inferior. One troubled poet was Howard L. Terry, who wrote in the foreword to his 1929 book Sung in Silence, "In offering these poems to the public I feel as if I were throwing a snowball into a red-hot furnace!" Terry anticipated that he would not find many appreciative readers because his poems smacked of old formalism. In defense, Terry explained what he thought was the problem of the deaf poet:
Deafness retards daily mental growth. The deaf man slowly falls behind his hearing brother. He moves with the slower shore current, while his fortunate brother is hurrying along with the stronger, middle current. The deaf man moves, but not with his hearing brother. Equally gifted, the hearing poet is doing better work at thirty-five than the deaf poet. Beyond that age the deaf writer does less work than the other; he has lost his grip, he is growing less sure of his way as times change, and he is less able to grasp and comprehend the new order of things.
Even so, many deaf poets valued their deafness. They had long known that there was something beyond sound from which they could create poetry. Indeed, almost every other book in English produced by a deaf poet since the middle of the nineteenth century quotes John Keats: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter...." But deaf poets differed in what they took this to mean. For some, especially those who were not born deaf but deafened in youth and subject to tinnitus, unheard melodies were the "inner music" in their heads. Robert F. Panara prefaced his collection On His Deafness and Other Melodies Unheard with "On 'Tinnitus' (Instead of a Prologue)," in which he wrote:
I learned to count the blessing of deafness in still another way. This came with the discovery of Poetry and the realization that, at last, I had found that elusive nymph whose magic seemed to transcend that of her sister muse of song. Under her spell, the inner noises experienced a fine "sea change/Into something rich and strange".... Often, I would leave off writing a poem because I was overly absorbed with the melody I had conceived.... Sometimes ... these improvised melodies were so haunting that I would spend the whole night sleepless and find a better balance between a certain point and counterpoint.
Other deaf poets had an understanding of unheard melodies wholly separate from sound, real or simulated. Deaf poet Earl Sollenberger, who wrote a poem called "Keats" in which he expressed his surprise at the fact that Keats was not deaf, believed visual experiences were equal to auditory ones in value. He presented both elements in his poem "Birds Will Sing" (1937), not surprisingly with the Keats quote as preamble:
To a thrush on a mulberry bough,
Once on a time God said:
"Sing, little fellow, sing
A sweet tune for that girl there
On the lawn.
She is watching, she is waiting,
She is listening, listening, listening."
The bird sang.
At the end God said:
"That was a good song. My choir
Back home was listening in,
And I think that We
Shall have better music from now on.
That girl there
Couldn't hear you,
But she is satisfied too."
When free verse came into vogue, many deaf poets were relieved. Free verse was not only literal to them, but physical: they were freed from rhyming dictionaries, syllable counting, and artificial pronunciation. If some continued to write formal verse it was now truly a matter of choice. But the twentieth century did not bring full liberation for the deaf poet. The conception that sound is the elixir of poetry persisted, and the little publicity deaf poets received continued to be more about the idea of the deaf poet than the poetry at hand.
That deaf people can write is obvious, and equally acknowledged is the power of the written word in poetry. So why should the deaf poet still be thought a novelty? Because it is believed that the deaf poet is always missing something vital.
The physical voice is popularly held to be in a higher place in poetry than the written word. Many hearing poets mirror each other, almost uncannily, in this belief. Two examples will serve to represent this. Here is Jules Supervielle:
[T]he printed matter that one follows with one's eyes, the silent and unmediated communion between the mute text and the reader, facilitate an unequalled concentration, the more precious because it opens up into an exaltation without witnesses. But isn't poetry made above all for the vocal life? Isn't it waiting for the human voice to release it from the characters of the printing press, from their weight, their silence, their prison, from their seeming indifference?
Edward Hirsch agrees:
Poetry is a voicing, a calling forth.... The words are waiting to be vocalized. The greatest poets have always recognized the oral dimensions of their medium.... Writing is not speech. It is graphic inscription, it is visual emblem, it is a chain of signs on the page. Nonetheless: "I made it out of a mouthful of air," W.B. Yeats boasted in an early poem. As, indeed, he did. As every poet does.
Not every poet. Deaf poets have increasingly protested against this sentiment. The hearing poets, to their small credit, are in keeping with mainstream culture, whose social construction is heavily dependent on hearing and speech. Against this, the Deaf world has been building for three centuries a cultural perspective contravening the formidable medical perspective that brands deaf people as disabled. Much of Deaf poetry, even by deaf poets who do not consider themselves culturally Deaf, contributes to this cultural vision that celebrates deafness as part of the human conditiondifferent, but still normal and equal.
Their work, moreover, is a collective subversion of the soundor, to them, unsoundtheory of poetry. Breaking the most ground are the Deaf poets who do not write. After all, writing is not native to Deaf culture as is signing. They make poetry out of handfuls of air, their lexicon cinematic and giving rise to a new poetics. Others work with both written and signed languages, with a full range of pidgin and experimental work on and off the page, opening boundaries between languages. The late Deaf poet Dorothy Miles wrote in the introduction to her 1976 companion collection (book and video) Gestures: Poetry in American Sign Language that, with certain poems, she had "tried to blend words with sign-language as closely as lyrics and tunes are blended in song." She continued, "In such poems, the signs I chose are a vital part of the total effect, and to understand my intention the poem should be seen as well as read."
While audism, both in society and in poetics, is likely to continue, it is provoking stronger and truer responses from Deaf poets. Contemporary Deaf poet Pamela Wright-Meinhardt was inspired to write "A Letter to C.F." after her professor in his opening lecture for a Shakespeare course declaredas the interpreter signed his wordsthat he pitied deaf people because they could not fully appreciate the beauty of language without hearing the dramatic voice. Wright-Meinhardt's missive in answer conveys what many contemporary Deaf poets feel:
Art starts in the heart and is meant to touch hearts. It is folly to think, then, that not being able to hear prevents a person from being inspired by sounds. The organ of the ear is a small compartment of a whole, not the whole of a person. Millions of nerves race through a body; what's to say a few in the ear destroy a person's ability to understand music? Or poetry? Or simply to have their hearts touched? And if the message is acoustic, is it always missed? Absolutely not.
Deaf poets have come a long way, but this should not come as a surprise or a "wondrous irony." Sound is only one of many vehicles through which poetry can travel from feeling and thought to expression and understanding. In other words, sound is mere medium, not source. What is often forgotten is that the capacity for human experience does not wait for sensations, but it reaches out and fills itself to overflowing. Deafness enhances the possibilities of poetry because it compels the poet, as it did Beethoven in music, to traverse roads less traveled but toward the same destination. The difference in deaf poets' work is not in its potential for art, but in its perspective, a prism through which those who have never imagined life without sound can see the world in a whole new light.
Editors' Note: We found that John Lee Clark's piece raised some further questions for us. It seemed easier and more efficient simply to ask him those questions directly rather than have him work the information into the essay. The following exchange was conducted by email.
Could you give us some idea of the Deaf poetry community?
John Lee Clark:
There isn't a Deaf poetry community, not like how there's a poetry community isolated from the mainstream as Dana Gioia discussed in his essay "Can Poetry Matter?" Unlike mainstream newspapers and popular magazines, the main Deaf publications still publish poetry and some still pay Deaf poets handsomely. So, many of us are read by the "people" instead of only by other poets.
But most Deaf poets are not known primarily as poets. One prime example is Mervin D. Garretson, a fine poet who studied English literature for his bachelor's and master's degrees. But he worked as a principal of Deaf schools. He abandoned his doctoral dissertation on the British poet Isaac Rosenberg when he was offered the directorship of the Council of Organizations Serving the Deaf. He became a giant in Deaf education and was for decades a top Deaf leader in education and human rights at the international level. His career, like most Deaf poets', hardly resembles Gioia's description of the "career track" in the poetry community.
One reason for this may be that the poetry community is not readily accessible to us. This can be both good and bad. Good in that we may be more able to remain innocent of the vices of the poetry community. Bad in that we miss out on the perks, some of which really do help poets to develop their art. A more important reason is that, as victims of widespread audism, we encounter things every day that we must respond to politically. It's not that our poetry isn't needed, but that there are many compelling opportunities in addition to our poetry for us to be of service to our people. We do know one another, though, and we relish our discussions of poetry. So we do have a network. But we are not one school or camp: our tastes, styles of writing, etc. are as diverse as what is found in the mainstream poetry community.
Are there a number of publishing venues? Books? Readings?
John Lee Clark:
There are several publishers and producersI say "producers" because signed poetry is recorded on filmbut The Tactile Mind Press is the first and only to be devoted to our literature. The others produce general Deaf-related titles and textbooks, but all of them have always been open to poetry. A few examples: Deaflife Press did Raymond Luczak's St. Michael's Fall, DawnSignPress did Clayton Valli's ASL Poetry, and Gallaudet University Press put out a book of Laura C. Redden's long out-of-print work. In the old days, many books of poetry were produced by the printing departments of schools for the Deaf and were distributed only within the signing community. This "exclusive" publishing culture lingers today, but the Internet and access to mainstream distribution have helped community publishers to broaden their readership.
As for readings, yes, there are readings and performances all over the world. But they don't move in the same circles as the mainstream poetry community. Most bookstores are poor venues for Deaf poetscramped seating, bad lighting, lack of projectors for text and film. Galleries and theaters are much more ideal venues. Historically, most readings and performances are hosted within the community at Deaf schools and gathering places, most of which have theaters or auditoriums. In recent years, there has been a growing number of mainstream non-profit literary organizations and colleges doing events featuring Deaf poets. Because of interpreting costs, among other factors, it may take a while before Deaf-poet events become viable for the bookstore circuit.
Do you feel that there are Deaf poets whose work should be included in, say, the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry?
John Lee Clark:
Yes, there are quite a few who should be in the Norton and all the other anthologies. In fact, I'm sick of reading the back jackets of those books telling you how "stunningly diverse" the selections are. What they really mean is stunningly diverse but no Deaf poets please.
There are a few non-culturally deaf poets already in the "canon," such as Du Bellay, Ronsard, Swift, Swinburne, Henry Lawson. Some contemporary ones have made names for themselvesDavid Wright, Jack Clemo, and recently Ilya Kaminsky. But none of the best culturally Deaf poets' names are well known in the mainstream. Have you ever heard of Alice Jane McVan? John R. Burnet? James William Sowell? Angeline Fuller Fischer? They deserve to be widely anthologized, along with Laura C. Redden and Earl Sollenberger mentioned in my essay. Robert F. Panara just made a little crack in the wall when a McGraw-Hill textbook included his sonnet "On His Deafness." Let's hope that crack grows.
Why do you think culturally Deaf poets are overlooked?
John Lee Clark:
Well, in one sense I can't blame the editors of anthologies. Deaf poets are hard to find. It's also very true what they saythat it's not what you know but who you know. Because we communicate in a different language, we are quite foreign, even if we live next door to you. Not many of us try "networking" in the poetry community. We would be bored to death at those writers' conferenceswho to talk with? Of course, we can use interpreters, but there are also cultural differences. I don't understand hearing cultureI don't understand the vagueness, the almost-saying-something-but-not-saying-it, or the white lies of hearing interactions. I just went to a Deaf comedian's show, and he made a lot of fun about hearing people, but he told the truth. One joke was about two hearing people who haven't seen each other in years. They've grown old and fat, but when they meet they go, "Oh, my, you're looking good!" or "You haven't changed one bit!" Whereas two Deaf people in the same situation would go, "You fat! Wow, can't believe! Hair white! Rumors comment you divorced now?"
Anyway, I'm guessing that most editors make their selections mostly from previous anthologies. So it's not hard to imagine an accidental tradition of excluding Deaf poets' work. I hope the anthology I'm now putting together will remedy that. I do wonder, however, whether Deaf poets will still be excluded even if their work is more available.
Robert F. Panara mentions "hearing" something when he writes poetry. Do you have a similar experience?
John Lee Clark:
No. I don't hear anything. I was born Deaf. One gets tinnitus if one was once hearing or experienced some form of hearing, like through hearing aids. Tinnitus is the brain continuing to "respond" to sounds that are no longer there. For Robert F. Panara's experience, I suspect it is like what I read about onceWalter Matthau liking to watch basketball games on television with Mozart playing. He said that it was almost as if the basketball players were playing to the music, in concert with it, you know? Tinnitus has its own program, and the poetry that Panara may be reading or writing has its own program, but they do somehow seem to merge and dance together. Because I never heard, and I was fortunate to escape the hearing aid craze when I was growing up, I don't have tinnitus. This is a good thing, because most Deaf people who have it tell me they would give anything to rid themselves of it. Yet, it seems if you have something to play in concert with it, like poetry, it isn't such a headache.
I do, however, feel amazing sensations when I read poetry. What I feel may be something like Panara's tinnitus, only it has nothing to do with hearing. Maybe all of us have some form of tinnitus, of our minds and bodies responding to things without requiring these things to be there, tasted, inhaled, or touched. After all, language wouldn't work otherwise; language requires memory. Poetry has something more than ordinary language that triggers even more powerful responses from me. Rhythm is instrumental in doing that. But I don't much like that word, rhythm, because it is so associated with sound. Pulse is a better word for me. You know how you can feel someone else's pulse and it becomes your own pulse? To feel and to be felt. Poetry is like that for me, because I don't only read a poem, I am also read by it. I guess the purpose of this process is to try and match certain things in the poem with certain things in me, just as Matthau's basketball players are matched with Mozart. In my native language, the sign for "match" is like the sign for "motor," and in my mind the purpose of matching myself with a poem is to make a motor. I like to imagine that the motor is that of an ultralight aircraft, because I can feel its pulse so clearly as I spin into air.