Impediments to a disability poetics: narrative preferences, body as formal metaphor

The preference for narrative within disability studies itself— and perhaps more broadly, the privilege of prose over poetry as a substrate for scholarly analysis — is one of the reasons why pain lacks a poetics within the field. Michael Berube, for example, has written that “disability demands a story” (43). G. Thomas Couser writes that “the scar, the limp, the missing limb, or the obvious prosthesis — calls for a story” (457). By analysing narrative, disability studies critics have discovered several toxic tropes that enter into mainstream stories involving disability — for example, the “supercrip” and the “disabled villain” — but what can a study of poetry offer? Might establishing a poetics open up, as Alice Hall wonders in Disability and Literature (2015), “a reconfiguring of] the ways in which we think about the form of literary texts as well as their content” (13)? Lennard Davis maintains that “When one speaks of disability... [it] immediately becomes part of a chronotope, a time-sequenced narrative, embedded in a story” (304).This chapter explores what happens in poetry, which is often achronological and not necessarily dependent upon time as an ordering principle. This remains true in the Canadian context. As yet there is no study of Canadian literature that explores narrative representations of pain, let alone the subcategory of poetic strategies to represent pain. Sally Chivers’s chapter “Survival of the Fittest: CanLit and Disability” in the Oxford Handbook to Canadian Literature offers a historical survey of representations of disability in Canadian literature. Chivers brings forth canonical prose voices for analysis like Margaret Atwood,Timothy Findley, Anne Marie Macdonald, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Thomson Highway. Poetry is not considered in detail.

In addition to the field’s preference for narrative, another reason to account for the lack of a disability pain poetics might be what Mark Osteen has identified as the social model’s “neo-Cartesian duality — its separation of body from mind, of impairment from disability” leading to inadequate theorizations of pain as an experience (3).The irony should not be lost on those who have lived experience of chronic pain, for the epistemology of biomedicine works the same way. For example, Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (2011), a seminal disability poetics anthology' in the US, states in its preface that poets with “a visible disability” were chosen according to a strict interpretation of the “social model of disability” (Bartlett 15). If, as Patsavas argues, the “belief that all disabled people experience pain and that all pain leads to suffering runs through popular discourses to create entrenched ways of ‘knowing’ pain and disability” (203—4), it is strange that pain is often left out of disability poetry anthologies. How else to resist and possibly renovate the familiar attitudes Patsavas mentions, since they lead to such ironically observable harms?

A hierarchy is thus established in a formative anthology, though it is a hierarchy shared in disability studies scholarship too. For example, in “Voice and Poetry,” the penultimate chapter in Hall’s Literature and Disability (2016), the poets who come in for analysis have physical deficits which manifest themselves in their poems. Hall’s chapter considers pathological processes that somehow destabilize communication — like in the work of Norma Cole and the late Tomas Transtromer, both of whom had strokes. Both poets problematize the concept of speech as the venerated conduit or representative of thought, and in the case of Cole, delivery of her work with speech deficits relating to the stroke productively displays speech as an altered conduit. As Alice Hall writes in her analysis of the crip poetics of Jim Harris, such substrates “celebrate disabled experience, and.. .explore the possibilities of the new poetic forms that are generated from the perspectives of'abnormal’bodies and minds” (156).

The most obvious way to demonstrate such a point occurs by focusing on visibly embodied conditions, as is the case in Beauty Is a Verb s “Toward a New Language of Embodiment” chapter, where experimental poets are included with the explicit rationale that “disability is manifested directly through physical connection to the writing. Rather than explaining an individual story, bodily condition is manifested through the form” (19). In a strange way, the ethic of destabilisation within crip poetics has become deterministic.

The trouble with a body-based disability aesthetics in the case of pain is that pain is a very poor fit. The locus should be that of the body-mind. Consider Tobin Siebers s materialist conception of aesthetics in which the human body “is both the subject and object of aesthetic production” when in contact with the sensations of other bodies (Disability Aesthetics 1). Compared to the sensation of pain, bodies are relatively easy to represent in poems. It is harder to create an aesthetics of what is immaterial, there being no direct-mapping or confirmatory coordinates with which to verify representations in the real world. Yet the real world is what crip poetics seems to prefer, and with justification. Jim Ferris’s seminal essay “Crip Poetics, or How I Learned to Love the Limp” is quoted in Beauty Is a Verb as follows: “Disability poetry can be recognized by several characteristics: a challenge to stereotypes and an insistence on self-definition; foregrounding of the perspective of people with disabilities; an emphasis on embodiment, especially atypical embodiment; and alternative techniques and poetics” (25). This sequence of elements reflects the field’s development: first, the challenging of stereotypes; then an emphasis through representation of the lived experiences of disabled persons in non-negative registers; then a demonstration of “atypical embodiment” that in the literature seems to represent most of what is offered as a poetics; and then a poetics.

Yet the work typically done on poetry in disability studies often focuses on form in that predictable way: form is juxtaposed or fused with body. (Deaf poet? Then ASL presents meaningful formal possibilities for expression, etc.) On the one hand, these are important connections to make. But on the other hand, to maintain that disrupted forms and dispersed forms are meaningful embodiments when deployed by certain individuals with metaphorically-conceptually corresponding impairments is obvious. Pain destabilizes such concretist assumptions. In this light, the potentially meaningful embodiments of crip poetics might read as a gruesome latter-day graft of physical form with poetic form. A final problematic is the fact that, as Sharon L. Snyder explains in “Infinities of Forms: Disability Figures in Artistic Traditions,” “...a disability source will often anchor explanations for artistic origins even as it will seem to explain away other motives” (174). What if the other motives are important to include in the poetics? It is important to note that chronic pain is often not localizable in a pathophysiological sense and can lack an inciting injury. Is the emphasis on the body a troublesome one for theorizing pain experience in the disability studies context? Does pain adopt a recognizable form? What is the place of pain?

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