Second Glance at ‘Deaf School’ | Matthew CleggPosted: September 15, 2020
A year ago, I was sitting in the audience of a poetry reading at the Ted Hughes Poetry Festival (Mexborough). The gifted poet Raymond Antrobus had just described ‘Deaf School’ by Ted Hughes as ‘an assault on the deaf community’. I listened carefully for an explanation, but I don’t recall Antrobus offering one that day. In the interval I wanted to talk to someone about this episode, but it didn’t feel right, and an opening didn’t occur. I was disappointed: discussion might have been interesting. I later discovered that Antrobus had published a redacted version of ‘Deaf School’ in his collection The Perseverance. This version has power as an act of raw deconstruction, but the poem that follows it (‘After Reading ‘Deaf School’ by the Mississippi River’) is a considerably more nuanced and imaginative riposte to Hughes. In a review of The Perseverance, Martyn Crucefix states that he once refused to teach Hughes’ ‘Deaf School’ (when asked), endorsing the view that it is ‘patronising and presumptuous’ (Antrobus actually implies that Hughes is not ‘wise’). I can imagine that Hughes’ bulletin from the 70s felt perfectly acceptable back then, but our own times demand different codes – especially in relation to marginalised groups. I’ve since gone back to Hughes’ lesser-known poem in search of evidence of an assault on a community. ‘Deaf School’ is a weird poem, and it is actually quite hard to pin Hughes’ position down. If the poem has any value (and I think it has some), perhaps it rests in certain undercurrents, operating on a less immediate level.
One thing is certain: I can’t know what it feels like to be someone from the deaf community reading Hughes’ poem, and I shouldn’t presume to. Many years ago, I was asked to facilitate a collaboration between deaf and hearing storytellers, and had visited the Royal School for the Deaf (Derby) in order to raise my awareness. The woman I spoke with offered me a great deal of practical and ethical advice, but didn’t stop there. Sensing my naivety, she leaned over and emphasised something important. The deaf community is a proud community, and many individuals in that community see themselves as belonging to something more civilised and humane than (the often discriminatory) mainstream society. Under no circumstances should I appear to patronise. I got the impression that she was warning me for my own good, not for the protection of deaf storytellers. Things have moved on since 1979, when ‘Deaf School’ was published in the ‘Earth-Numb’ section of Hughes’ transitional volume, Moortown. I have no wish to invalidate other perspectives on this poem – but I do want to engage with them.
Possibly, one of the hardest things to swallow about the poem is its position of highly detached observation, and the way in which this (privileged?) poet could be seen to be colonising a subject he has no right to wade into. Furthermore, the movement and facial expression of the deaf children is compared to that of animals. They are ‘monkey-nimble’, and ‘fish-tremulous’. Their faces are ‘small night lemurs caught in the flash-light’. This is highly vivid description, fairly typical of Hughes in his revelatory, observational mode. In some contexts, comparing (aspects of) a child to an animal might not seem respectful – except Hughes belongs to a line of poets (Blake, Whitman, Hopkins, Lawrence) who often venerate animals above humans. He frequently employs them as symbols of a more intense and authentic mode of being. If he describes the deaf children as ‘alert and simple’, simplicity is not necessarily an undesirable quality in the Hughes universe. Cerebral intellectuals were more likely to feel the lash of his contempt (see ‘Egg-Head’). In ‘Starlings’, it is the ‘distracting devils’ of human complexity that get in the way of writing poems. His poetry aspires to the simple, pure alertness of the bird. For Hughes, language itself is a kind of animal. The poem is a sort of creature.
Is ‘Deaf School’ callous because it arrogantly describes the children as ‘lacking a dimension’ (i.e. response to sound), defective in comparison with the superior fullness of the hearing? Is Hughes ‘othering’ deafness, or presenting it as less than human? Again, I don’t find an answer easy to formulate. It strikes me that Hughes’ account of what it feels like to have hearing is no less strange than his account of what it looks like to be deaf:
Their selves were not woven into a voice
Which was woven into a face
Hearing itself, its own public and audience,
An apparition in camouflage…
According to Hughes, to hear oneself speak is to embark on a process that leads to artifice, self-consciousness, narcissism, concealment and possibly deceit. The poem does seem to tie in with Hughes’ 1970s obsession with the inadequacy of language to fully express the self. His apprehension of deaf children is deployed in the service of a wider argument. They become a symbol of humanity in general – the essence is beneath the skin, beneath language.
Perhaps Hughes is guilty of marking the deaf children as defective, but there is still something else nagging me. If Hughes has objectified the deaf children by comparing them to lemurs, has he not also made the ‘apparition’ that hears his own voice equally strange. Is that ‘apparition’ a subliminal figuring of himself? The normalcy of ‘hearing’ feels equally scrutinised here. It reminds me of a science fiction story one of my MA students submitted. She presented a culture where speech was viewed as Satanic deceit. The people of this culture preferred the purity and authenticity of body language.
Unfortunately, Hughes’ evocation of the physical process of signing does not quite fit into a purity / authenticity thesis. In fact, his awkward evocation of this mode of communication is even more unnerving and contentious. The deaf children speak with a ‘machine’ that is external to their ‘hidden’ selves. The space this machine extends into is ‘alien’. Their hands (like their bodies) are ‘like the hammers of a piano’. Here Hughes seems to flounder, as analogy after analogy doesn’t quite capture the complexity of this mode of being: ‘a puppet agility’ with the ‘blankness of a hieroglyph’, ‘a stylised lettering / spelling out approximate signals’. This certainly ties in with the notion of a wider argument. If sign is portrayed as a machine that falls short, the language of Hughes’ poetry is also an unwieldly apparatus that fails to quite capture the essence of deafness and sign. Whatever Hughes’ daylight argument on deafness is, his poem is leading him (and us) into complex terrain. But the question still remains: does Hughes have the right to use the deaf children to explore this wider obsession with language?
The deaf children’s faces are described as ‘simple lenses of alertness’. In truth, it is Hughes who is most often a watcher – a wolf-watcher who wishes he could do better, and step into the skin of the wolf, taking ‘us’ with him. ‘Deaf School’ reaches such a pitch of hyper-watchfulness that poetry forgets to listen to its own voice (and diplomatically censor itself, perhaps). It free-associates analogies and images like an octopus grappling with a bar of soap. (‘Second Glance at a Jaguar’ does something similar.) The poem is as hyper-visual (and externalised) as Hughes’ vision of sign. The phrasing of the last stanza is perhaps unfortunate. Hughes tell us that the face of deafness is in ‘darkness’, ‘concealed and separate’. Maybe it is. I’m in no position to say. What the poem actually seems to enact, however, is that the face of deafness is concealed from the observational mode of writing Hughes is employing here.
Ironically, Hughes (the private man) was someone who often chose to keep his self / psyche ‘concealed’ and ‘separate’ for most of his literary career. One price he paid for this was what hostile parties projected onto his ‘apparition in camouflage’. Was the man arrogant, or was he emotionally wounded? (Ok, a person can be both.) Hughes does not seem (to me) to be consciously assaulting deafness in ‘Deaf School’, but he might be taking liberties with it as a subject. In his defence, he seems to muster all the watchfulness and mental energy he can in order to push through neat and superficial modes of expression. In fact, I detect a latent affiliation with the ‘separate’ or ‘concealed’. If his poem falls short in an attempt to cross a (perceived) gulf between the deaf and the hearing (or the children and the man), it succeeds at reminding us how potentially strange both modes of being are. It is not exactly a heroic failure, but it doesn’t seem hopelessly callous either. A journey into strangeness is exactly what I’d expect from the writer of Gaudete and Crow. On balance, I think ‘Deaf School’ deserves both criticism and a degree of open-minded re-reading. It’s a flawed poem, yes, but it could yield an interesting discussion.
Photograph by Warren Draper.