'Elephant' Woman Meets 'Elephant' Man

Laura Albert in Conversation With Poet Kenneth Sherman

Alexandra Dean Grossi

By Laura Albert

Published December 26, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 3 of 5)

Joseph Merrick displays a different type of heroism. He employs wit and sarcasm to deal with the prejudice he encounters. In the poem you refer to, “Everything,” Merrick notices a newspaper ad for a gentleman’s dressing bag, but the joke is that nothing in the bag is of use to him. (“The deformity of my mouth / renders the toothbrush unusable.”) Merrick’s cutting humor relieves his discomfort.

I read your work and I think of the Stanley Kunitz line, “The heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking,” from “The Testing Tree.” How is Merrick’s story Jewish — or not?

I’m very fond of Stanley Kunitz; he called poetry “spiritual testimony.” Joseph Merrick was a devout Christian and yet, as a Jewish poet, I identified with him. His position in Victorian society is, in some ways, similar to that of the Jews. Merrick is considered unattractive, hideous even; he is thought of as barbaric, uncouth. He is dehumanized to the point where he is treated as an animal. One is tempted to think of how the Jews of Europe would be considered vermin less than a century later. It is a shock to Merrick’s physician, Treves, and to the rest of upper-class Victorian society to learn that their elephant man is articulate, spiritual and can recite long passages of the Bible by heart.

Yet even when his sophistication is recognized, he is still considered an oddity. I cannot help seeing in his foreignness and outsider status a kinship with the Jews. Yet, to be honest, the poetic concerns of my book transcend religion. After all, the female muse of poetry is much older than Yahweh or Moses or Jesus or Muhammad or Krishna or Buddha. Poetry is more primal than religion, and more universal. I can be touched as deeply by a poem of Rumi, or Basho, as by a poem of Yehuda Amichai. Strangely, this universal art is born out of aloneness. The poetic imagination is solitary. Poets may bemoan their outsider status, but it is crucial for them to preserve it and one of the ways to do that is to identify with a lonely figure such as Merrick.

How did you start writing?

When I was 12 years old, my grade-eight teacher presented me with Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death.” Reading the poem was a life-altering experience. I recall walking home after school that bitterly cold January day with lines of poetry coming to me seemingly out of the blue but inspired, no doubt, by my encounter with Miss Dickinson. By the time I reached my front door a complete poem had taken shape. I rushed to my bedroom, grabbed a pen and hurriedly wrote it out. Soon after, I went to Coles bookstore in Toronto and for 50 cents purchased a paperback copy of Louis Untermeyer’s “A Concise Treasury of Great Poems.” I recall reading for the first time Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.” I was hooked.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.