One of the reasons I began writing poems was my visible difference. I have severe spinal curvature, due to a genetic condition called Marfan Syndrome. This skeletal divergence from expected form began to appear as puberty arrived. My body seemed to have its own strange and willful poetry. Surgery gave it an order and stability. Still, I could not be ‘fixed’. Everywhere I went, I turned heads and seemed to prompt staring, that peculiar mix of discreet curiosity and hostility. I think I began to write poems so that this process could no longer be one-way, so that I could have an influence over how I was seen. At poetry readings, I said ‘I have a hunch / that curvature / can be aperture’, and felt the audience’s response come back—their collective gasp of discomfort and empathy.
As time went on, the more poetry and writing about poetry that I read, the more I ran into the body. It seemed to be at the heart of poetry. Adrienne Rich wrote that a poem ‘is not a philosophical or psychological blueprint; it’s an instrument for embodied experience’. Echoing this, with his own distinctive take, Les Murray said ‘the ensemble of effects in a poem calls into play our autonomic nervous system … by bringing about a state of alert in us … [The poem] is a suspended alert, needing only the body of a reader or spectator to play itself over and over again’. But when we say ‘body’, what are we referring to? Actual, real, particular, individual bodies with their viscera, sweat, memories, desires, bacteria, heat, odour and scars? Or an abstract, universal body, perfectly healthy and frozen as if in an anatomy textbook?
Earlier this year, I read Disability Aesthetics by Tobin Siebers. Siebers claims that the figure of disability has become the key to understanding modern visual art. Not only is disability found within artworks as a theme and entwined within the life and practice of many influential artists, but it is ‘an aesthetic value, which is to say, it participates in a system of knowledge that provides materials for and increases critical consciousness about the way that some bodies make other bodies feel.’ When I read this, I felt a shiver of recognition, like I’d been given a compass and permission. Perhaps Sieber’s bold and illuminating claim might not be limited to the visual arts. What if the story of poetry, particularly in the free-verse era, was the story of bodily difference? Is modern and contemporary poetry deformed?
When Siebers writes about disability, his scope is broad—‘wounded or disabled bodies, representations of irrationality or cognitive disability, or effects of warfare, disease or accidents.’ In short, all the ‘misshapen and twisted bodies, [the] stunning variety of human forms.’ You may not recognise yourself in this list, you might think of such bodies as totally alien. But if this isn’t you now, it will be, through accident or ageing. Indeed, some activists in the field of disability refer to people without disabilities as the ‘temporarily able-bodied’ For my own reasons I am cautious about using the term ‘disabled’ at the moment. Disability carries with it the sense of government regulation and economic imperative (as in, ‘how disabled are you? Can you work?’). Perhaps our bodies are better described as ‘free-verse’. Free-verse poems are, of course, not formless—their shape emerges not according to a pre-determined formal grid, but organically, according to the demands particular to each poem. The poet tries to make the poem embody the unique complexity of lived experience. Perhaps the movement towards free verse in poetry has occurred precisely because of the insistent presence of our diverse bodies, especially those of us who demonstrably can’t conform to social expectations of what a body should look like. But how?
Look at the poem on the page. Each poem is its own body, a form that bears the marks of being crafted by a person. The ambiguities in a poem remind us of the ambiguities we encounter in people. Like people, poems must be reckoned with on their own terms and energies—not just as an object, but as having subjectivity embedded in it. The body of each poem is unique. Received forms such as the sonnet appear on the page as solid and ordered, with no noticeably long or short lines to distract or disturb the reader. While each unique expression of the form contains some degree of subtle physical variation, they are unable to achieve complete uniformity. With the arrival of free verse, this is immensely amplified. Poetry begins to revel in a new kind of (dis)order—deformed, asymmetrical or staggering across the page. Charles Olson’s influential essay ‘Projective Verse’ expresses and encourages this tendency.
Verse now, 1950, if it is to go ahead, if it is to be of essential use, must, I take it, catch up and put into itself certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes …Let me put it baldly. The two halves are: the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE; the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE (92, 95).
Notice that Olson says the line is not only determined by laws but also possibilities of the breath, the specific bodily inspiration of the poet, which is certainly shaped by biological principles, yet is also variable, uncertain and open. Larry Eigner—a rarely cited yet influential figure in the Black Mountain and L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry movements—wrote poems which are powerful examples of this. They drift across the page away from the left margin, composed of irregular lines of unpredictable indentation and spacing. Eigner uses white space as much as words themselves, creating an impression not only of silence and movement but three-dimensionality. While these forms are shaped by the poet’s cerebral palsy, which made typing an acutely painstaking act, they are not at all unique to him, but indicative of the movement of contemporary poetry itself. Free-verse poems push towards their own unique expression, unashamed of apparent disorder. The diversity of these visual forms speaks of the diversity of our bodies—which range from subtle divergence from the norm to radical and unsettling deformities.
Difference is also subtle to the point of microscopic. Think of the line break. In the poem the line break, especially with enjambment, signals interruption, the breath-taking pause in the midst of speech. While language always includes pauses and ambiguities, poetry heightens this quality, hones in on it. Poems which use the line break powerfully give the impression that an external force is coming to bear on speech. This expresses human limitation and illness,it can even hold the foreshadowing of death. The sentence implies the continuity and completion we assume for our lives; in contemporary poetry, the line break, like disability or wounding, interrupts us.
Rhythm and meter, too, express humanity in an awkward balance of regularity and irregularity. Shapiro and Beum’s ‘A Prosody Handbook’ states ‘the Latin iambus derives from a Greek word meaning ‘a cripple’. The short syllable represents the lame foot, the long one the foot descending with normal strength, perhaps with the added strength of a cane’. When speech is shaped into poetic form, the irregularity or asymmetry of the way our bodies move and sound is highlighted; it can even be accentuated. Iambic pentameter, that most classic and confident of western meters, is a limping movement, as if disabled. But it is also, of course, enabled. As poet Jim Ferris wryly quips, ‘God bless those adaptive devices’. Like wheelchairs, hearing aids and prosthetic limbs, which enable people to engage with the world beyond their assumed limitations, poetic devices expand the reach of what we can achieve with language.
In modern and contemporary poetry, an idiosyncratic rhythm is celebrated and even exaggerated. Allen Ginsberg, when asked whether his poetry naturally conformed to classical meter, replied that while he sees some affinities between Howl and iambic pentameter as well as the Greek choriambic, such categories don’t quite fit when describing the contemporary poet’s method.
I was working with my own neural impulses and writing impulses. See, the difference is between someone sitting down to write a poem in a definite preconceived metrical pattern and filling in that pattern, and someone working with his physiological movements and arriving at a pattern… but arriving at it organically rather than synthetically. Nobody’s got any objection to even iambic pentameter if it comes from a source deeper than the mind, that is to say if it comes from the breathing and the belly and the lungs.
As Ginsberg implies, the free-verse era is not characterised by a rejection of poetic form. Instead, there is a proliferation of forms, a freedom which includes the ability to work within existing structures, revitalising them with radically subjective language. In her essay ‘Reshaping the outline’, Laurie Clements Lambeth writes about her initial struggle to articulate her experience with multiple sclerosis—‘[it] was too expansive and tentacled, too emotionally unpredictable, too difficult to harness into free verse … I needed the cage of a villanelle to house the poem’. Each stanza of the villanelle form includes the refrain of lines from the previous stanza, the effect is a sense of a power beyond the intellect, haunting and inescapably braided into life, which must be reckoned with, in this case, the vulnerability of the poet’s body, and by implication, our bodies.
Other poets have harnessed and subverted the associations historically embodied in form, as in Sandy Jeffs’ sonnet ‘The Agony begins/The Scream’—every single one of its fourteen lines is ‘Aaaaaaaaarrrrrggggghhh!!!’, a pitch-black exposure of the sufferings of schizophrenia, without the traditional volta or turn towards transformation or release. Poems in the free-verse era bind form to their subjects, more often with dissonance than with harmony, fusing form to content, so that they are inseparable, yet still fundamentally unsettling.
The bodily forms we are currently surrounded by—impossibly photoshopped models, de-racialising cosmetic surgery, heroic and almost super-human, disabled athletes, even the predictable shapes which the storylines of Hollywood and ‘reality’ TV take—can be cacophonous and overwhelming. But their volume only attests to their failure. We recognise, even if only dimly, that normality is a mirage. Modern poetry, with its fractured forms and perfect incompletion, is a kind of linguistic full-length mirror in which we can encounter ourselves and each other. What we do with that knowledge is another story.
Andy Jackson’s collection of poems Among the regulars was shortlisted for the 2011 Kenneth Slessor Prize. He has performed at literary events and arts festivals in Australia, India, USA and Ireland. A new collection the thin bridge won the Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize and will be published in September 2014. He writes about bodies and identity atamongtheregulars.wordpress.com