Allison's Book Bag

Beauty is a Verb, the New Poetry of Disability

Posted on: December 19, 2014

My review will not do justice to Beauty is a Verb, edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northern. Poetry anthologies do not fall under my expertise, even if the subject matter of disabilities is something I know about as a special education teacher. However, this almost 400-page book created such as impact on me that I’m going to try to write a few words of recommendation.

Should you ever have opportunity to pick up Beauty is a Verb what you’ll have in your hands will be far more than simply a series of poems written by those with physical disabilities. The anthology is organized into four distinct periods within the American Disability Poems: Early Voices, Disability Poetics Movement, Lyricism of the Body, and Towards a New Language of Embodiment. The earliest poems were written prior to 1960 when disability was still shunned. As such, poets within this period were unable to imagine such accommodations as the erection of curb cuts for wheelchair users. The second period includes the controversial development of crip poems or poetry of cripples. Some fear that if disabled people form a community, their separateness from society will be reinforced. At the same time, others believe that the connection of a community would be affirming to those with disabilities. Recent poetry shows more experimentation by poets in how they chose to explore disability.

Accompanying many of the poems are essays. Some of the essays are tributes to poets who are believed to have shaped disability poems such as Josephine Miles who suffered from the age of two with rheumatoid arthritis. Others were written by featured poets themselves and cover such enlightening topics as the antagonism and obsession felt towards Helen Keller: “I was an ordinary kid who never did her homework, never cleaned her room, and didn’t want to be saintly. There was no way that I could ever be able to hang out with Helen Keller.” Several of the essays even include references to landmark events for the disability rights movement such as how in 1977 the movement reached its apex when the disabled and their advocates took over the fourth floor of the San Francisco Federal Building for almost four weeks. This protest resulted in the ratification of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits any federally-funded program from discriminating against a person with a  “qualified” handicap.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the anthology. First, the tiny print is off-putting, and almost kept me from reading this valuable body of work. Second, as a special education teacher, I wished to see more than physical disabilities represented. However, the editors do provide a reasonable rationale for this latter decision: “…. We primarily chose poets with a visible disability. In this, the poets’ difficulty becomes twofold, a struggle with physical limitations coupled with the society’s critique of non-normative body.”

As a package, Beauty is a Verb gives an insight into how societal attitudes towards disabilities has evolved. As I perused it, I found myself wanting to pursue a doctorate in disability literature. I can also imagine teachers of students in high school or college selecting certain poems and essays to spark conversations about what it means to be both abled and disabled in one’s body. Although perhaps for a select audience, this is an impressive volume.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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