Disability Haunting in American Poetics

Article excerpt

In medicine and rehabilitation, disability has been exclusively narrated as individual tragedy and deviance from bodily norms. As a result, humanities scholarship has only recently begun to understand disability as a foundational category of social experience, and a matter of symbolic investment. The essay examines the language of haunting used by Robert Pinsky in his analysis of American poetry as constitutive of a uniquely American memory. Poems featured in Pinsky's discussion-namely Abraham Lincoln's "My Childhood Home I See Again" and William Carlos Williams's "To Elsie"-are re-read as relying on unacknowledged representations of disability. The essay designates this spectral presence of disabled people's material circumstances in print and media as disability haunting. A disability studies approach to literary analysis can provide readers, teachers, and critics with the ability to concretize such haunting subject matter. Hence, the essay seeks to make surface a 'poetics' of disability in literary works that remain standard to required English classes in American universities and high schools, as well as to interpret poetics broadly as the matter of metaphor, trope and experimentation with storyline.

Introduction

Perhaps disability has been so exclusively narrated as individual tragedy that humanities scholarship has only recently begun to understand it as a foundational category of social experience, and a matter of symbolic investment. In contrast, identity based fields in race, gender, and sexuality studies have deconstructed metaphors that uphold oppressive attitudes throughout literary history. For example, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison points out that Moby-Dick, the white whale, enacts a story of racial conquest and domination. She interprets the "whiteness of the whale" as the all-consuming, yet unacknowledged controlling aesthetic of racial relations in pre-civil war U.S. This analysis powerfully conceives Moby-Dick as an allegory for the material reality of racial oppression.

Social attitudes, in Morrison's example, re-emerge in literary metaphors that exemplify an otherwise suppressed political domain. This effort, to make the repressed struggle of a minority culture surface in literature, may be expressed as a matter of materializing a subject matter that haunts the text. Haunting serves as an apt metaphor in that it suggests that the volatile nature of a topic cannot be addressed directly and, therefore, must be interpolated from the available rhetoric, plots, and characters. This tactic has become a key methodology of U.S. literary criticism and provides a means by which literary studies may reveal an otherwise erased history.2 It posits a link between artistic language and the social world in which it participates.

In this essay we will examine the language of haunting used by Robert Pinsky in his analysis of American poetry as constitutive of a uniquely American memory. Pinsky exposes ways in which U.S. poetry employs a "characteristically American form of memory," one that haunts the present with its devotion to material circumstances of history that are otherwise forgotten or suppressed. Specifically, we will re-read several works in Pinsky's discussion as reliant on representations of disability as a critical, but unacknowledged aspect of making this repressed cultural history surface. Rhetorics of disability would seem to be the very criteria that inform Pinsky's declaration of poetical excellence for the distinctly U.S. national tradition he outlines, yet this fact goes unstated-and likely unnoted. We will refer to this spectral presence of disabled people's material circumstances in history as disability haunting. Ultimately, we will demonstrate how novelists of the post-World War II era break with a lengthy tradition of poetic tropes that treat disability as a metaphor for cultural collapse.

One could further trace a disability poetics from the early 1960s in lyrical poetry that punctuates scenes with confessions of the poet's own sense of mental and physical instability, most famously, the understated "My mind is not right" that interrupts Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour. …