As a part of his Poem-a-Day curation, the Academy of American Poets asked July 2023 Poem-a-Day Guest Editor John Lee Clark to curate ten classic poems and write ten accompanying About This Poem statements about how Disability poetics can give us insight into poetry from the historical archive. 

John Lee Clark’s statements explore the history of Disability as well as the formation of the category of Disability itself, concerning everything from the rebuffed ableist gaze, to prayer in American Sign Language (ASL), to a paean for blindness disguised as an elegy for the dead. Read more below:

About “A Sick-Room Idyll” by William Gay

“‘A Sick-Room Idyll’ is a rare glimpse into disability space. Almost a throwaway piece, so relaxed and light, it is a striking departure from the carefully crafted, highly finished sonnets William Gay favored. It turns away from confrontation, from frontality, and moves toward the creation of excess; it attempts to create enough room for reciprocity. The poem isn’t without questions or ironies. One is that, as the editor of his collected poems, J. M. Oliphant, has reported, Gay found reading poetry hard. ‘Isolated passages from [William] Wordsworth[John] Keats[Percy Bysshe] Shelley[William] Shakespeare and [Alfred, Lord] Tennyson,’ Oliphant explains, ‘exercised a great fascination over him, and he was never tired of repeating them. It was as pure poetry that these interested him; of anything beyond that he soon tired.’ This means that, while Nellie may get literary references mixed, such as by talking about ‘Homer’s Faust,’ Gay himself knew Homer and Faust by reputation only.”

About “A Prayer in Signs” by Alice Cornelia Jennings

“American Sign Language (ASL) poetry had one of its beginnings with the frequent reciting of The Lord’s Prayer in Deaf Christian churches, non-denominational chapel at Deaf schools, and on many other occasions. Renderings had become so polished that ASL speakers in the nineteenth century saw The Lord’s Prayer as the epitome of poetic beauty. When oralists demanded the banning of ASL in Deaf schools in favor of teaching Deaf children English speech and lip-reading only, defenders of ASL often performed the Lord’s Prayer during debates to demonstrate what ASL could do. But oralism still came to dominate education, and one result is that an ever-increasing number of Deaf children, continuing even to this day, do not learn ASL until later in life. Alice Cornelia Jennings was one such child, ‘educated by the pure oral method,’ as she wrote in a 1906 issue of The Silent Worker, a national newspaper that was popular among the Deaf population of the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, ‘and, up to a few years ago, prejudiced against the use of any other.’ However, ‘experience and observation’ had changed her mind. ‘A Prayer in Signs’ is her brilliant account of The Lord’s Prayer in ASL as both performance and experience. ‘Others,’ Jennings insisted, ‘should not condemn a thing the utility and beauty of which they do not at all understand.’”

About “The Music of Beauty” by James Nack

“‘I pity those who think they pity me,’ quips the Deaf speaker of James Nack’s eleven-line poem ‘The Music of Beauty.’ Published in 1827, a mere decade after the establishment of the first permanent Deaf school in the United States (Nack himself attended the second one to be founded), this poem is the first of an enduring trope in Deaf poetry, one that expresses disdain for, even mockery of, hapless and ignorant hearing people. Nack jeers at the marble-eyed who cannot see beauty properly. But perhaps he should have been kinder to them, for he did win the hand of his hearing childhood sweetheart, and it was reported that their family life, which included three daughters, was ‘one of great felicity.’”

About “Marie Bashkirtseff Said” by Annie Charlotte Dalton

“Annie Charlotte Dalton is the first poet, through her 1926 title The Silent Zone, to devote an entire book of poems to the elucidation of a disability identity. This was not the same identity that already enjoyed ample literary precedents in sign language-speaking communities. Dalton understood herself to be ‘late-deafened’ and helped to pioneer activism among hard of hearing and late-deafened groups in Canada and the United States. In order to gain a purchase on what had been, until then, an amorphous, slippery identity, she seized on any historical figures, role models, and even fictional characters she could find. A powerful source of affinity came in the form of Maria Konstantinovna Bashkirtseva (1858–1884), a Russian-born French artist who had experienced progressive deafness and whose posthumously published diaries won great acclaim. Dalton presents an embattled, misunderstood, and assaulted figure in ‘Marie Bashkirtseff Said’ and enters into the fray not only in her defense but also by joining her in the self-defense she had already initiated. It is this force of claiming an elusive kinship that propelled Dalton to do what no other disabled poet had done before, not even those with more established community ties: write a whole collection of poems as a disability manifesto.”

About “The Sluggard” by Isaac Watts

“In the history of Christian hymnody in English, you had, for centuries, David’s Psalms in translation, and then, strolling the lovely grounds of a manor in Stoke Newington, you had Isaac Watts. Gifted with an easy, elegant originality of phrase and rhyme, Watts was also famous for songs exhorting children to be good and not to ‘tear each other’s eyes.’ Idleness, however, was the worst of possible evils. It is here that we stumble into a bed of thorns. Oppression is often internalized, and literature by disabled writers is rife with ableism, not just toward people with other disabilities, those ‘worse off’ than us, but also toward someone else with our own disability. Self-flagellation, too, lurks close by. Watts’s portrayal of and attitude toward a ‘sluggard’ is problematic but not without its lessons for us about the power of care. After his second illness in 1712, Watts never regained full strength. Friends took him in, and he eventually found an open home with Sir Thomas and Lady Mary Abney, where, for thirty-six years he enjoyed, to quote the hymn writer Thomas Gibbons, ‘the privilege of a country recess, the fragrant bower, the spreading lawn, the flowery garden, and other advantages, to soothe his mind and aid his restoration to health [. . .].’ Gibbons went on to echo the speaker of ‘The Sluggard’: ‘Had it not been for this most happy event, he might [. . .] have feebly, it may be painfully, dragged on through many more years of languor and inability for public service, and even for profitable study, or perhaps might have sunk into his grave under the overwhelming load of infirmities [. . .].’ Instead, this exceptional support produced an astonishing body of work—hymns, poems, theological treatises, essays, and a popular textbook on logic. Samuel Johnson observed that, in Watts’s case, ‘notions of patronage and dependence were overpowered by the perception of reciprocal benefits,’ a dynamic that would later inform disability justice around care work.”

About “To a Bride” by Mary Toles Peet

“‘Thou askest, O my friend, a song to-day,’ opens Mary Toles Peet’s disarming offering for a Deaf friend’s wedding. Here we catch a fleeting acknowledgment of Peet’s role as one of the Deaf community’s poets laureate, someone friends and organizers of Deaf events could depend on to compose and present a poem, often in American Sign Language (ASL) translation but sometimes, problematically, orally. Like most Deaf occasional poets of the nineteenth century, Peet did not pursue mainstream literary publications. We are fortunate that she was so often asked, as the idea of addressing her own community had excited her talents in ways that the idea of a larger, hearing readership never did.”

About “On the Death of Sir Erasmus Philips” by Anna Williams

“Although Anna Williams wrote other beautiful elegies, there is something else going on with ‘On the Death of Sir Erasmus Philips.’ It is not just how the subject of death can offer disabled poets a temporary respite from grappling with the ableist gaze by redirecting it toward a fresh corpse. It is also not quite that this poem plunges us into another world, to a watery grave and its environment, though Williams does engage with otherworldly landscapes elsewhere, such as in a poem called ‘The Valley of the Moon.’ It is, instead, the ecstasy of having passed through a great change, in her case becoming blind a couple of years earlier and being in the process of discovery. Note that the poem says ‘It yet remains’ three times. If much remains, even in the face of death, then how much more remains with mere blindness? By the way, it was recorded that new acquaintances of Williams’s were ‘always surprised’ by how she ‘could assist herself with so much ease and readiness, that she required little attendance.’”

About “The Author’s Picture” by Thomas Blacklock

“Whole books should be written about this one poem! But for now, let us ask: why would the speaker tremble to touch himself? What I call Distantism, the privileging of the distance senses of hearing and vision, is not merely the regulation of social distance but goes beyond it in keeping us physically apart. Distantism intends to atomize us, to wrap us in tidy individual packets. It can separate us from ourselves. Yet Thomas Blacklock boldly offers his body, trembling hands notwithstanding. He achieves in ‘The Author’s Picture’ an exquisite equilibrium, equatorial in its wobbling sway. By turns self-deprecating and self-celebratory, Blacklock tackles his task with a joyous impudence. ‘My youthful down is, like my talents, rare,” the speaker jokes. ‘Politely distant stands each single hair.’ As wonderfully engaged with his own body as the speaker is, he is rightly not very interested in it—interested, yes, but not very. There’s so much more that makes a meaningful ‘picture.’ The speaker constantly fumbles his way out of the skin-encased body. One needs a world, a way to move, a geography, so that what we have is not a body, but, to use the philosopher Erin Manning’s terms, a ‘bodying,’ and not a world, but a ‘worlding.’”

About “Faces in the Street” by Henry Lawson

“‘Faces in the Street’ finds its speaker occupying a position Deaf people often slide into, ‘the unguarded quarter.’ A phrase familiar to Deaf communities, and itself the name of a Deaf Australian author’s publishing company, it comes from David Wright’s 1969 memoir ‘Deafness.’ ‘Like an eccentrically-sited camera taking angle-shots that distort but may often reveal otherwise masked lineaments of truth,’ Wright writes, ‘the deaf person watches from the unexpected and unguarded quarter.’ Henry Lawson turns his speaker’s vantage into a sweeping view of a white settler society, with all its grimness but also with its potential for revolution. Lawson was the son of a feminist publisher, had once been engaged to the future socialist literary icon Mary Gilmore, and was, at the time the poem was published, about to marry Bertha Bredt Jr., the daughter of the prominent socialist activist, bookstore owner, and writer Bertha Bredt Sr. Despite these relationships with strong women, he proved to be an abusive husband and was thrown into jail seven times for, among other misdemeanors, failure to pay child support. An alcoholic, he was often depressed. Unguarded quarter or no, he was subjected to and the cause of the same miseries listed in ‘Faces in the Street.’ Perhaps it is no accident that hammering repetition propels the poem, as it is possibly the only way to turn around a juggernaut.”

About “All Souls’ Day in a German Town” by Margaret Fairless Barber

“How many disabled people are there? This question has long attracted debate, and almost no one is in agreement. While narrower definitions have their uses, the line that divides disabled and non-disabled seems to enjoy dancing out of bureaucrats’ clutches and has, in some discourses, gone so far as to encompass the entire global population: Everyone is disabled! Which is too easy, of course, an evasion. Margaret Fairless Barber’s evocative ‘All Souls’ Day in a German Town’ nudges us toward another paradigm—partly by virtue of Paradise being her destination—where Enlightenment-style categorization is abolished. ‘The leaves fall softly,’ opens the poem. The sighing wind ‘Whispers the world’s infirmities . . .’ Who has not known infirmity? And Barber cites a whole continuum, ‘the tale of waning years,’ something that has routinely wrecked various disabilities’ population estimates. People have the annoying habit of becoming. We persist in becoming. Not that all of us become disabled all the time, but disability happens to contribute to the contours of many ‘becomings.’ From this perspective, disability cannot be reduced to a problem. Instead, it is a mystery—not in the sense of something puzzling or unknowable, but as something alive and moving.”