Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a renowned literary critic in the field of Disability Studies, states that literary representation of disability has consistently marginalized characters with disabilities, which in turn facilitates the marginalization of actual people with disabilities. More often than not, writes Garland-Thomson, disability is utilized for its "rhetorical or symbolic potential" (1997, p. 15). When the reader considers Owen's quote about pity, taken along with his intent to protest the war, the disabled subject of his poem becomes little more than a poster-child for pacifism. Moreover, Owen's treatment of the subject exemplifies Garland-Thomson's conclusion that "When one person has a visible disability . . . it almost always dominates and skews the normate's process of sorting out perceptions and forming a reaction" (p. 12). The normate, or the nondisabled person, brings to the text a whole set of cultural assumptions, on which Owen depends, to leave the reader believing war is futile and not worth the cost in human lives and injuries. My purpose is not to argue to the contrary; I am not examining the value of war, but the devaluation of the disabled figure in Owen's poem.
We know: nowadays the word "rape" usually describes a horrific situation at which laughing is strictly—and rightly—forbidden. But back in 1714, when Pope published The Rape of the Lock, the term "rape" had a broader definition. Sure, they used it as we do, but it could also refer to the act of seizing or taking anything by force (you can see where our more specific use of the word today comes from—and both meanings, as you'll also see when we dive into analysis, are active in this poem).
Wilfred Owen, a Soldier Poet who spent time in several military hospitals after being diagnosed with neurasthenia, wrote the poem "Disabled" while at Craiglockhart Hospital, after meeting Seigfried "Mad Jack" Sassoon. A look at Owen's work shows that all of his famed war poems came after the meeting with Sassoon in August 1917 (Childs 49). In a statement on the effect the Sassoon meeting had on Owen's poetry, Professor Peter Childs explains it was after the late-summer meeting that Owen began to use themes dealing with "breaking bodies and minds, in poems that see soldiers as wretches, ghosts, and sleepers" (49). "Disabled," which Childs lists because of its theme of "physical loss," is interpreted by most critics as a poem that invites the reader to pity the above-knee, double-amputee veteran for the loss of his legs, which Owen depicts as the loss of his life. An analysis of this sort relies heavily on a stereotypical reading of disability, in which "people with disabilities are more dependent, childlike, passive, sensitive, and miserable" than their nondisabled counterparts, and "are depicted as pained by their fate" (Linton, 1998, p. 25). Such a reading disregards not only the subject's social impairment, which is directly addressed by Owen, but it also fails to consider the constructed identity of the subject, as defined by the language of the poem.
My reservations about the term 'crip poet' are similar to my reservations about the terms 'disabled poet' or even the politically correct term 'poet with a disability.' What does any of it mean? Ferris published an essay on defining 'crip poetry' in the June 2007 issue of Wordgathering, an online journal of poetics. In the essay, titled "Crip Poetry, Or How I Learned to Love the Limp" Ferris writes, "Crip poetry centers the experience of disabled people; it shows disabled people taking control of the gaze and articulating the terms under which we are viewed." Ferris cites characteristics of 'crip poetry,' which include "a challenge to stereotypes and an insistence on self-definition; a foregrounding of perspectives of people with disabilities; an emphasis on embodiment, especially atypical embodiment; and alternative techniques and poetics."
While it's encouraging to begin to have acknowledgment of poets with disabilities, I find it also discouraging that these first efforts are essentializing, seeking to brand a common disabled experience, and define the work according to a grid, rather than simply opening the field for disabled poets to enter the conversation on their own terms. For the purposes of this paper, I will dispense with Ferris' definition. Instead, I define 'poet with a disability' as exactly that, a poet who has a disability.
Miles was the first woman to receive tenure (1947) in an English Department. She taught at the University of California, Berkeley where she founded the Berkeley Poetry Review. She produced thirty-three books of poetry and literary criticism. In books such as The Vocabulary of Poetry: Three Studies (1946) and The Continuity of Poetic Language (1951), she traced the usage of words as they appeared in poems, and created charts to report which words were en vogue, out of vogue, or recurring.
Mobility was always an issue for Miles, who used canes, walkers, and wheelchairs, though she did not address it directly in her poems until her final collection titled Coming to Terms. She lived at the height of activism in Berkeley in the 60s and 70s, but she did not align with any one faction. When questioned about 'women's lib' Miles said that "They [the feminists] didn't ask me to be a part of this because, as I say, I think women always take the attitude toward me that if they'd lean on me, I'd fall over."
In an earlier section of the interview, Miles describes the layout of her high school and how it contributed to her development as a poet.
"The high school was divided by floors. The science and the languages were on the second floor. I had to climb up one flight of stairs. English and history were on the third floor, which was really very hard for me to get to. I could climb stairs then, with help, but it was awfully hard. So I postponed as much of English as possible and did a lot of languages and sciences—whatever I could on the second floor. I remember writing a poem at the end of my junior year which was called 'To Dr. Edwards, On Going to the Third Floor.'"
After high school, Miles encountered resistance when she wanted to attend UCLA. The dean of women advised against it.
"The dean said [...] I'd have to ask too many favors, and she thought it was right that I should go to a small college where I could be protected. So I was weeping heavily as I went out the gate. The cop had let me in, and so this cop—I guess he was waving us on, and then he sort of stopped and said, 'What's wrong? Why are you crying?' I said, 'Because the dean of women wouldn't let me come here because I'd ask too many favors.' He said, 'What favors do you have to ask?' The ones that were on my mind, of course, were very trivial. It was just a matter of registering. I said, 'I'd have to stand in line to get registered, and I'd have to get permission to drive on campus.' He said, 'You get somebody to stand in line for you, and I'll let you drive on campus.'"
Miles experiences predate the Disability Rights Movement. And while that movement brought changes to public policy, issues of access are not entirely resolved. Likewise, the attitude that the disabled 'ask too many favors' remains prevalent. Perhaps this year's greatest achievement toward access for the disabled happened just last month when an appeals court ruled that the government must issue paper currency with Braille.
I'd like to read a poem of Miles' from her final collection Coming to Terms. Prior to this collection, Miles work engaged the quotidian details of life—in such poems as "Market Report on Cotton Gray Goods" and "Apartment" and "Shade." She seems like the granddaughter of Wordsworth by including fragments from everyday speech in her poems. In Coming to Terms, Miles presents her disability along with her usual touchstones of everyday life.
Earlier, what I remember: a small
Flame of arthritis in the midst of fields
In the Euclidian Sunday mustard fields
And the mud fields of the potted palm,
In Jackie's airy room,
And at the fire station
All the brass
And all of us
Feeding the gulls.
A fresh salt breeze and foam
Around a plaster leg.
Away from the chloroform intern, joy
Of the long journey when I ran
Free of the plaster, and got back
Down those long hills, spent out.
Where had I been, oh tell me.
Under those vast sunny
Apricot trees in the front yard?
Go tell Aunt Rhodie the old gray goose is dead.
What I like about this poem is its frank interrogation of Miles' childhood experience of disability: frank in its beginning, 'what I remember' and interrogative in that line, 'Where had I been, oh tell me.'
I wonder what we think of these two poems? Certainly Gluck isn't alone in personifying disability (Bidart's Book of the Body gives us plenty of examples as well). Why do able poets write from this perspective? Before I began seeking poems written from a disabled perspective, I found plenty of poems written on the subject of disability, and in persona, from an able perspective. I can hardly pick up a journal or collection of poetry without coming across blindness or deafness or madness as metaphor. I used to count the number of "phantom limbs" that cropped up in poems; the phantom limb is typically a metaphor for the loss of a loved one. This has always struck me as funny because my phantom limb is ticklish rather than painful.
When I had a colleague read this paper, she commented that one of her writing teachers actually used the term 'phantom limb' as a way to describe the writing process. It was the same writing teacher who was African American and protested to the use, any use, of the word "dark" as a negative.
In an essay titled "Feminist Disability Studies," Rosemarie Garland-Thomson notes the "major aim of all of my work in both literary and feminist studies is to show that the always overdetermined metaphoric uses of disability efface and distort the lived experience of people with disabilities, evacuating the political significance of our lives and mitigating the influence of disability culture."
For comparison's sake, I'd like to take a look at a poem by Louise Gluck who uses similar subject material. Unlike Miles, however, Gluck is not disabled. She puts on a disabled persona. The poem is from her 1969 collection Firstborn. Here is how Kirkus describes the subject material of Firstborn: "She [Gluck] deals in wastelands. . . the lost lives of cripples ... the hopeless and loveless."
The Cripple in the Subway
For awhile I thought I had gotten
Used to it (the leg) and hardly heard
That down-hard, down-hard
Upon wood, cement, etc. of the iron
Trappings and I'd tell myself the memories
Would also disappear, tick-
ing jump-ropes and the bike, the bike
That flew beneath my sister, froze
Light, bent back its
Stinging in a flash of red chrome brighter
Than my brace or brighter
Than the morning whirling past this pit
Flamed with rush horror and their thin
Boots flashing on and on, all that easy kidskin.
While I'm not going to linger on these two poems and the different ways they address disability, I'd like to note the different ways the poets use the word "tell": Miles writes, "Where had I been, oh tell me," engaging with the reader, while at the same time not completely disclosing; and without a question mark, the line reads as if Miles expects no answer. Gluck writes, "I'd tell myself the memories / would also disappear" in a self-reflexive tone, turned in rather than out. Her imagination of this disabled experience is much more explicit and objectifying.
"Disabled" consists of seven stanzas, which Daniel Pigg breaks down into five vignettes, representing the soldier's life. The first vignette, or first stanza, according to Pigg, "sets the stage for understanding this alienated figure that [the poet] observes" (1997, p. 92). Already the reader finds that the speaker occupies a privileged position, because he has no first-hand experience of what it is like to be an amputee and is merely an observer. The speaker sees a "legless" man, "waiting for dark," dressed in a "ghastly suit of gray" (Lines 1-3). This pathetic image proffered to the reader creates a relationship based on pity, meaning that the reader places a high value on his functioning body while devaluing the losses of the subject. "Waiting for dark" could be interpreted as waiting for death, and the "ghastly suit of gray" may as well be the vestige of a ghost. The subject, who is seated near a window, hears male children at play in the park, "saddening" him until sleep "mothered" the voices from him (Lines 4, 6). The reader is to assume, as Owen has assumed, that the subject is saddened by memories of times past, when he, too, would play in the park with the other boys. So is the reader to assume that "play and pleasure after day" (Line 5) are no longer available to the subject? The end of the first stanza invites the reader to accept the subject as being dependent and child-like, as sleep "mothered" him from the voices. Owen has effectively molded his subject into a convincing Other, a man near death and halfway into the grave.
Pigg's analysis of the word "queer" is worth noting because he uses it as an example of the subject's social displacement. It is in the second stanza that the reader is first encouraged to consider not just the physical impairment, but the social impairment of the subject. Pigg shows that early usage of the word "queer" to denote homosexuality began officially in a 1922 document written by the government. Based on this finding, Pigg assumes that the word could have been known and used by popular culture as early as 1917, when Owen's poem was penned (1997, p. 91). Pigg claims that Owen's use of the term illustrates a "loss of potential heterosexual contact," while at the same time expressing that "society has made him what he has become . . . the use of the concept in the poem makes one more aware of oppression in a society that has brought the soldier to this state" (p. 91). Even though Pigg analyzes the social construction of the subject's identity, he limits his discussion to society's role in pressuring the soldier to join the war and not with the systematic oppression of disability, the result of the subject joining the war. However, this subject is best represented by Owen's final two stanzas.