NASSR 2019 Panel: Medical Poetics. Reviewed by Sharon Choe
North American Society for the Study of Romanticism
Panel: "Medical Poetics"
- Chair: John Savarese (University of Waterloo)
- Jessica Roberson (Mount Saint Mary’s University), “‘In short, I’m sick of sickness’: Thomas Hood, Chronic Illness, and Form”
- Erin Lafford (University of Derby), “‘Fancys or feelings’: John Clare’s Hypochondriac Poetics”
- Thomas J. Brennan (Saint Joseph’s University), “Dramatized Empathy: Aids and Romanticism in Paul Monette’s Last Watch of the Night”
Reviewed by Sharon Choe (University of York)
Illness in literature can be approached by writers and readers alike with a certain cautiousness. Accounts of illnesses are considered as stories of a deeply personal journey for the writer, filled with pain and remorse that the readers then have the privilege of viewing. Of course this is a generalisation, but this sort of engagement with illness or medical discourse is part of a fundamentally ableist interpretation that determines illness as a negative and arduous experience that should be treated as a delicate subject, something that reduces the powerful voices of history that emerge to express their personal narratives. The panel titled “Medical Poetics” takes this ableist viewpoint and thinks about the intervention of “chronic poetics,” a form of literary engagement that exposes embodied poetry to refute ableist accounts. Each paper addresses a different poet and/or writer—Thomas Hood, John Clare, and Paul Monette—to think about their respective approach to personal chronic illnesses.
Jessica Roberson started the panel with a vibrant paper on her new project on the poet Thomas Hood and his use of humour. Roberson discussed Hood’s “sickroom fancies” as rooted in his real-life chronic illness. Hood’s comic designs and visual representations of puns become his primary way of disrupting the dominant order of language, and therefore a method of disrupting ableism. Roberson discussed how these puns can create dissonance by playing with temporality and rhyme to collapse the multiplicity of chronic poetics. An example is Hood’s “Fragment probably written during illness,” where the word “sick,” in all of its uses and understandings, embodies his experience. The embodiment of language becomes part of the relationship of art and text in Hood’s puns, and by closely reading these fragments and small pieces, Roberson convincingly argued that we can begin to re-read chronic poetics in Hood as one that challenges the ableist dialogue whilst addressing his real-life situation and taking control of his narrative.
Erin Lafford presented the second paper on John Clare’s hypochondria, which comes from a chapter of her current monograph titled “John Clare’s Medical Imagination.” Lafford discussed how the presence of mental and physical symptoms in Clare’s letters and prose have led scholars to try and diagnose his illness before transferring the symptoms to his verse to interpret Clare’s condition in specific ways. Building on Roy Porter, Lafford thinks of madness as a deliberate performative act in Clare, one which permits him to regain the agency of his narrative. She posed the following questions: How do Clare’s writing and letters evade or desist interpretation and diagnoses? How does his imaginative process become impressed on his mental register? Lafford refers back to the term “hypochondria” and its contemporary uses before applying it to Clare’s condition. By returning to Clare’s self-conscious engagement with the vocabulary of hypochondria, Lafford defines it in terms of a sort of truthfulness or fanciful playfulness when approaching his symptoms. Clare’s hypochondria might show a desire for a diagnosis, but it is also performative; it is an extension of his powerful imagination through which he crafts his story, therefore shifting the perception of body and mind in his poetry.
Thomas J. Brennan presented the third and final paper of the panel, the title of which is slightly changed from the one printed in the programme. Brennan focused on Paul Monette’s collection of essays, Last Watch of the Night (1994), setting the scene with an overview of Monette’s LGBT activism. The collection is Monette’s meditation on dying from AIDS, and in one of his essays, Monette uses Coleridge’s poem “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison” (1797) to think about the rights of the LGBT community. Brennan reflected on the idea of “privilege” as it is played out in gay communities in relation to the ongoing battle with AIDS. He sensitively addressed the relationship between older men and their longer fight against AIDS and the younger generations that would not have been present during the former’s struggles. While reviewing the narrative, Brennan highlighted the problems surrounding the ethos of “having been there,” as it can unintentionally exclude people from any narrative. Returning to Monette, Brennan examined the ways in which he appropriates Coleridge in his personal narrative. For Monette, the Romantic poet embodied the “here” in the battle against AIDS. Coleridge imagining his friends enjoying themselves in “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison” is relatable to Monette who thinks about his own inability to join friends in an LGBT rights march due to his illness. The struggle of these two different writers were thoughtfully brought together in the paper as Brennan finished by reminding us of Monette’s political inflections and how they manifest in his activist writing, something that can also be found in Coleridge.
The Q&A began with a question about how hypochondria fits into and could change the way we read Clare’s natural history. Lafford responded that Clare’s natural history writing could be seen as a practical treatise on a cure for hypochondria. There should not be a desire to pathologize his poems but instead a desire to use them to shape our understanding of the subject matter. The Q&A then moved to a general question about “fancy and feelings” and the humour of these works. Roberson suggested that humour shows a state of indeterminacy, especially in Hood’s work as he focuses on the little thing, little object, which could be seen as an ephemeral trifle. Lafford expanded to explain that fancy is a relationship between a sense of being and a state of materiality.
Audience questions moved onto who has the privilege to be humorous about illness and disability, and the general consensus was that humour in illness is related to creative ownership. It can be a self-reflexive tool, as in the case of Hood, or for Clare as a labour-class poet who is constantly marketed as “sick” or “ill,” humour becomes an important way of reclaiming and maintaining his own literary ownership. Illness as a form of labour—imaginative, activist, and physical—was a unifying thread for all three papers. For Clare, hypochondria is an illness of the learned who do not “labour” and so introduces a class perspective to the debate. By involving himself in this discourse, Clare shows his desire to participate in this higher level of conversation, and thus his poetry becomes a self-conscious labour of identity formation. Brennan added that Coleridge’s poem directs the reader into feeling a certain way. Monette adopts this method of projection and used it for his activism to think about whether there is a way someone can be.
It is clear after this panel that humour is an important part of chronic poetics, as Roberson terms it, as it transforms moments of pain and anxiety into a powerful reclaiming of autonomy. Humour actively breaks down the boundaries of ableism that still dominate our own critical reading of medical illnesses today. It challenges us as academics to rethink our own interpretations of illness, be it hypochondria or something specific like AIDS, and revisit how the writer or artist conveying their personal experience are working towards an autonomy that is not be as clear-cut as the ableist viewpoint will allow.