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Autistic Poetry: Firing the Canon

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While the content of autistic poetry may differ greatly from neurotypical poetry, this is a result of the differences in experience that will naturally occur from person to person, as would happen between poets from different regions of the world. Much like with gender, sexuality, and race literature, the point is not to separate disability literature from the cannon but rather to shed light on the different perspectives it has to offer. To pigeonhole these poets as simply autistic does them a disservice as artists because, while each of these poems deals with the subject of autism, they are so disparate in terms of their perspectives that they deserve to be considered as individual artists who are part of the literary canon of their own merit.

Autistic poets, like other poets, attempt to connect to readers through their writing. In Rebecca Foust’s poem “Dark Card,” the author tries to reeducate neurotypical readers who may not understand the way her son behaves while acknowledging the aesthetic nervousness that others experience as a result of his autism. Though there is nothing physically disabled about her child, his autistic tendencies such as “knock[ing] down / the apple sauce pyramid” (9-10) and “standing on his desk again” (15) make the neurotypical community aesthetically nervous in the same way that a physical disability might. Those who do not understand equate these behaviors with those of other students who are considered suspect or potentially even dangerous, as mentioned in line 34 with Kaczynski or Columbine. The language Foust uses to describe her son is beautifying: it portrays his actions in a positive manner. For example, on line 38, the mother depicts her son’s body as “his question mark flower stalk spine”; she also describes her son’s removal of the applesauce jar from its pyramid as the creation of an algorithm, rather the destruction of a display. As an advocate for autistic people and as the mother of an autistic child, Foust sees it as her job to alter the perspectives of those who do not understand people who behave similarly to her child.

“A Simple Cup” by Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhya (TRM) is written by an autistic author from the perspective of an autistic speaker. The intention of his poem is to portray his unique experience of becoming preoccupied with the “orange and yellow, / randomly marked” (8-9) cup. This differs greatly from Foust’s intention in “Dark Card”: she attempts to make the reader aware of a social issue and reeducate them, rather than simply documenting the autistic experience. Foust, writing from a neurotypical perspective about autism, is utilizing more traditional line length and stanza integrity, whereas TRM avoids stanza and traditional line, which emphasizes his neurodiversity. This neurodiversity is further demonstrated through his utilization of heavy repetition and assonance, which emphasizes that the cup, as TRM says in the poem, “turned into / my obsession” (27-28). He also conflates the image of the cup with a “smile” (15): TRM makes an arbitrary connection between these two things, which becomes, in the context of the poem, metaphor. At the end of the poem, TRM writes that he is “filling and emptying / that cup of memory…with [his] story” (43-47), which solidifies the idea that the poem is attempting to convey some small part of his unique autistic experience.

Elizabeth Kate Switaj, another autistic poet, avoids stanza integrity and uses nontraditional line as well as visual patterns— such as indention and her use of ampersands instead of the word “and”—to convey her unique patterns in thought. Switaj’s unique aesthetics parallel the subject matter of “Irresistible Investment: The Autism Cure” itself. In this poem, the autistic author depicts an autistic speaker who addresses an autistic audience. In the first stanza, the author highlights the pejorative “chelations of a language” (3) that surrounds autism in order to, perhaps, justly depict treatments of autism. Switaj explains that these “metals kill my kin” (5): the speaker has a unique perspective upon these treatments because, as an autistic person, the speaker understands what it would mean to be cured. A cure is tantamount to elimination and genocide. Switaj also uses the word “we,” which places the narrator inside the autistic community, addressing his/her peers.

These three poets all address their audiences in different ways. Foust is trying to address a neurotypical audience and reeducate them in regards to their perceptions of autism. TRM uses his personal experience to impart to his reader a greater understanding of the mindset of an autistic person. Finally, Switaj’s autistic narrator uses the unique perspective of an autistic person to assert his/her understanding of how fatal a cure for autism would be to the autistic community. While these three works may have a basis in the same subject matter, they are by no means focused on the same elements of the autism spectrum, nor do they approach them from the same perspective. These works hold up as poetry in their own right even without the existence of an autistic canon, and should be considered as such.

By: Mairin Martin, Matt Blakley, Helen Alston, and Andrew Allingham

Written by Mairin Martin

December 7th, 2010 at 12:54 am