An Anthology
John Lee Clark, Editor
(Gallaudet University)
There are certain themes here. Tinnitus. Beethoven. NAD (The National Association of the Deaf). ASL (American Sign Language). John Keats and his

    Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
    Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
    Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
    Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone ...

Then there is "oralism" vs. "manualism." The first uses lip reading, speech, mouth movements and hearing technology to communicate. Vide Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone to assist his deaf mother and his deaf wife, Mabel Hubbard. [See Bell in Fig 1, above, with Helen Keller.]

According to the deaf, oralism takes a great deal of work, is immensely tiring. On the other hand, manualism uses handshapes, movement and facial expression, and is far simpler than oralism, and was favored by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and his son, Edward Miner Gallaudet. Manualism was popular before the 1860s, was said to bring the deaf "closer to god." It was considered an art, like French mime and pantomime.

Among the deaf, and their hearing instructors, the debate between oralism and manualism was bitter, and, apparently, seems to be ongoing. There are poems in Deaf American Poetry that mourn the hundred years when the latter was in eclipse. In "The Oralist," James William Sowell writes,

    Oralist, O oralist, show your silken hose
    Little souls are sacrificed that you may wear such clothes...

The poem ends,

    Oralist, O oralist, turn your head aside,
    Know you not the pitying Christ for sins like yours has died?

Evidently the world of the deaf is rife with such controversy. In one poem, Loy E. Golladay (who the editor refers to as "a poet of the Deaf Pride movement") elaborates on S. E. E. (Signing Exact English) and offers a very funny poem about "Anthropological Linguistics." A chimpanzee "at interpreting he could not be beat; / He signed with equal skill --- both hands and feet..."

    It was a marvel of bilingual grace. He added footnotes at the proper place.

§     §     §

We have in this volume almost a hundred poems and two hundred years of deaf poetry. Some of them, from the early 19th Century, are, according to the editor, examples of "pandering to a hearing audience." The very first poem by John R. Burnet tells of "the desolating chill ... the dungeon darker, --- colder still; / Such was the lot the deaf and dumb have borne."

Most poems in the first 150 pages or so don't fare much better. The famous college founded in 1857 as the "Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind" (the name was changed to Gallaudet College in 1954) is the publisher of this volume. Deaf American Poetry includes a poem by George M. Teegarden, commemorating the school:

    Hail Gallaudet! Thy sons and daughters throng
    Into thy halls with laughter and song;
    In grateful homage, true, they praises bring,
    And to thee, Gallaudet, in gestures sing.

My gut feeling about this volume is that it can be divided into three parts. The first is the oh-how-miserable-it-all-is school, represented by Burnet and others. Then, starting in the mid-20th Century, comes the it's-not-what-you-think bunch, characterized by Robert F. Panara. His "On His Deafness" --- there's a touch of Milton in the title --- is said to be "the most widely anthologized and quoted poem by a Deaf writer."

    My ears are deaf, and yet I seem to hear
    Sweet nature's music and the songs of man
    For I have learned from Fancy's artisan
    How written words can thrill the inner ear...

The poem ends with the writer not hearing but sensing

    The lover's sigh, the thrumming of guitar,
    And, if I choose, the rustle of a star!

For this critic, the volume comes to noisy and raucous life with Kristi Merriweather's "Be Tellin' Me,"

    People tell me
    what they think
    a black deaf female is...
    I say
    excuse my standard English, but
    _____ you
    I don't take no
    part this

And, best of all, Debbie Rennie's "As Sarah," complete with no blanks,

    I played her
    because she drew a hearing aid on
    a picture of Virgin Mary
    Her mother cried and
    threw her out to deaf school
    she thought that her own daughter is
    mental retarded.
    I understand her very well
    She filled up with rage inside her
    Again, mother wants her to be normal by
    fucking with hearing boys.

--- A. W. Allworthy
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