Saturday, 14 April 2012

Falling Tall Women, Pope and Body

This is a blog partly in response to a posting on the blog Poetry on the Brain by Helen Mort. This post looks at the relationship between the body, the mind and the poet. This response wanders off, of course, as I like to wander, annoying to those around me but strangely exhilarating to me as I find all sorts of things down the road less travelled; teapots, unread letters, marbles, a few of which are often my own.

I should perhaps start by saying that as part of my work in the past I have worked with those who have or have had acute Body Dysmorphia and on two occasions Gender Identity Disorder. I also know someone who, as a hospital social worker in the United States had to deal with two people experiencing so called Body Identity Integrity Disorder ( when a person feels a part of their body does not belong to them and is so alien that they want it amputated ).

These are of course very extreme positions on a ‘psychiatric continuum’ which we all to some extent inhabit, for instance how many women or men regard a part of their body as unsatisfactory when others can see no problem at all. How we perceive out body and also how we perceive our movement of it and the space it inhabits is extremely interesting and must be part of the human condition.

Many children with Dyspraxia I have worked with have huge difficulty knowing where their body is in space. If you ask them to lie on the floor and close their eyes many will clutch at the floor and they will open their eyes because without any visual feedback they feel as if they are falling in space. Ask them to describe that feeling and even very young children have told me not only are they falling (with all the inevitable anxiety this can bring with it) but they feel they are losing something else they can’t quite name. One boy once told me it felt like he had to open his eyes because if he didn’t he would disappear, which I can only presume is a loss of the sense of self.

The use of various techniques such as sensory circuits help such children build a greater sense of where they are in space and in relation to others and the effects on behaviour and mood are reported as enormously beneficial in many cases. This of course begs the question of how self-esteem and self-perception are integrated within the psyche which is a whole different ball game but nevertheless increasing an individual’s body awareness in space does seem to have a marked effect on self perception.

Those whose career and identity are intrinsically woven into their physicality; how they move in space , how they control their body to achieve various objectives or to experience a sort of endorphin rush find the loss of bodily function informs who they are, their own sense of self. Kinaesthetic memory has a huge impact on memory in general and if identity is seen as a constant chain of memory, each link has to be of some importance in creating and perceiving self. I am 6’ 4” tall and that has had a huge impact on how I perceive myself and how I am perceived by others which has to have a knock on effect on self perception.

Strangely at the moment I am attempting to write about being extremely tall. I actually see the world differently given my eye-line which means I see somethings others do not and vice-versa. I can see across a crowded room whereas my shorter friends can not; my body allows me to experience a crowded room as something other than a swathe of backs . Put me in a room full of people taller than myself, which has happened once or twice and I become quite disorientated and strangely disembodied. This is nowhere near the impact that a disability could have on who I am and how it effects my creative work. Someone in a wheelchair entering a room who has to look up to people to talk to them has to work harder at maintaining their self esteem as there is research that shows that having to talk to someone taller than yourself has an impact in how you perceive the nature of the dialogue and who has the power in the relationship. This may tie in with your example of the difference people showed in judging distance after being read different types of stories. A very assertive tall person can be seen as either a leader or a bully (dependent on context), whilst an assertive short person can be perceived as either exhibiting some kind of ‘Napoleon’ complex or being aggressive.

The late Ian Drury in later life said that his disability had a huge impact on his creative work if only in so far as he sort to fight against and nullify what others perceived as its impact. It would be interesting to know how many poets now and historically have disabilities, blindness, deafness, paralysis, deformity, and how is this bodily difference reflected in their work and is there a difference in those with a difference from birth and those who have acquired a difference.

I sometimes can’t help but think about those old tales of Native American Indians believing that if they allowed their image to be taken (photographed) they believed their soul would be taken from them. Perhaps they knew better than we do that when faced with the objective image of our own bodies, in order to process that information something more than the visual is involved, we have to integrate that with our self perception and this may cause a real schism in our sense of personal identity which you may see as the soul if you are religious. Who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be has always been a hot poetry topic and the shell we inhabit isn’t really a shell at all it is an integral part of who we are and how we inhabit physical space.

Alexander Pope, the eighteenth century poet and essayist (among many other things) struggled with ill health all his life. He had a kind of tuberculosis of the bone which led him to be only 4’6” tall and quite badly deformed. He was in constant pain yet his sharp satirical wit demonstrated his refusal to be pandered to because of his physical looks. But of course how far was his physical difference the source of something that drove him to be the poet he was. His Catholic faith precluded him, as brilliant as he was, from ever attending University or holding any public academic post and yet this hunch-backed little man was able to be one of the most prominent thinkers of his day. The drive to be listened to, to write, to be counted as one of the great minds of his day cannot be totally divorced from the fact of his body and the way that impacted on who he was.


There are those who to my person pay their court:
I cough like Horace, and, though lean, am short
Ammon's great son one shoulder had too high -
Such Ovid's nose - and 'Sir, you have an eye'.
Go on, obliging creatures, make me see
All that disgraced my betters met in me.
Say, for my comfort, languishing in bed,
'Just so immortal Maro held his head;'
And, when I die, be sure and let me know
Great Homer died three thousand years ago.
Why did I write? What sin to me unknown
Dipp'd me in ink? my parents', or my own?
As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came.
I left no calling for this idle trade,
No duty broke, no father disobeyed:
The Muse but served to ease some friend, not wife,
To help me through this long disease, my life.

Alexander Pope

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