from LIKE A TEARDROP
The fundamental idea that had driven me to
learn sign language was that deaf poetry, or poetries, pointed out the protographic
elements of written language. Ekphrasis—painting of pictures with language—long
considered a polarizing element separating the "sister arts" of the writer and
the painter, is deeply preserved in the body of the ASL poet and shatters the
line between innovation and imitation. As Susan Williams suggests, the artist
must combine enough sympathy and knowledge of the subject to become it—sometimes
by schema, sometimes as a precise epiphany. Nevertheless, the body of the ASL
poet is the body of the work and has a direct relation to its formal, contextual,
and noetic aspects.
Within the language arts zone of deaf cultures, I found correspondent and interactive microcosms dating back to Simonides, noted by Plutarch in his Moralia, who called painting "silent poetry" and poetry "talking painting." The connection between poetry and art went back in Deaf culture to the Renaissance and the work of Ronsard, who as one of the foremost precursors of modern visuopictoral poetic composition was also profoundly deaf by the age of sixteen. After a discussion with Allen Ginsberg in 1980 while at the doctor’s office, in which he told me that Ezra Pound had argued that golden ages of poetry arose whenever vernaculars rose to literary power by challenging the exclusivity of the official language of the period, I had a sudden awareness—satori—that language confluences of high magnitude, similar to Dante’s use of the common Italian against the empire’s Latin in the fourteenth century, were operating in ASL.
By 1987, at the first National Deaf Poetry Conference, I viewed ASL not unlike my own language; it had its own multitudinous poetry lineage and Canon. What was lacking in studies of sign languages was comparative and theoretical aesthetic analysis of poetries, not linguistic rules, of which there were an abundance. There being no singular Deaf experience, I was fascinated by the possibilities for poetic diversity. One poet’s work was an ekphrasis of cultural slavery, another expressed the growth and sorrow of the heart, a third possessed an eye for prophecy, a fourth investigated only things Deaf, a fifth was unconfined by the most rigid of cultural restraints. Also, through the universality of film as a text medium, there was, in ASL poetry on video, an enormous energy toward overturning the ruling principle of the separation between plastic representation and linguistic reference referred to by Michel Foucault who argued that a viewer cannot simultaneously focus on a picture and a text. The documentation of ASL poetry, and as a result, the variety of individualized pictextual aesthetic works of language arts by deaf people, was giving new meaning to Horace’s phrase Ut pictura poesis ("as in painting, so in poetry").
The making of an ASL poetics discourse comes from an understanding that by "poetry" we mean something essentially human, not hearing. This is the great poet’s work, regardless of origin and background. Whether we create to preserve, change, or destroy parts of ourselves, our cultural framework, or the world as it has become, we Understand, or we come to understand—through lessons and models people bring to one another in the language of their bodies—that inclusiveness is a natural state for poetry and reflects the ability to construct forms that are ambiguously imaginative as well as imitative, temporal as well as spatial, compassionate as well as knowing. Furthermore, homogeneous and/or static forms of difference based upon preexistent monoliths of hierarchy, including systemic institutionalization, medical guardianship and language terrorism only serve to keep deaf people in a colonized and marginalized framework of distortion and trivialization.
The study of ASL poetics is a crucial element in the evolution of the death of the pathological, the contraction of the norm. The best deaf poets’ works challenge fixed stereotypes regarding ability; but far great they are capable of reflecting consciousness beyond paint or word. As a field of study in the Humanities and Literature, ASL poetics suggests that the broader totality of abilities is far greater than the narrowest constructed fantasy of physical and psychological beauty.
No greater precedent exists for the study of ASL poetics than Joachim du Bellay’s 1549 publication of Defense et Illustration de la langue françoise, a defense of the new 16th century French language poetry. Du Bellay, who was deaf, would inspire Wordsworth’s "Preface" to The Lyric Ballads in 1778 and Shelley’s Defense of Poetry in 1821. Inevitably, the motivation for ASL poetics research by the acadame may lie in the steadfastness of the deaf poet subject to the medical face of governmental intervention. Like painting which, as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in Lacoön (1766) argued, requires stricter regulation than poetry, deaf people’s use of ASL has been monitored and isolated because "the plastic arts have an effect that demands close supervision by the law" which, through words, controls the production of "monstrous images." In January 1840, Edgar Allen Poe published an article in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger in which he found himself struggling to describe the new art of the daguerreotype’s extraordinary powers "of conveying any just idea of the truth." The more I look at ASL poetics, the more, like Poe, I see opportunities for a "perfect identity of aspect with the thing represented."
[Jim Cohn. "Like a Teardrop in Some Forgotten Video." In Sign Mind: Studies in American Sign Language Poetics. Museum of American Poetics Publications, 1999.]