'Elephant' Woman Meets 'Elephant' Man

Laura Albert in Conversation With Poet Kenneth Sherman

Alexandra Dean Grossi

By Laura Albert

Published December 26, 2012.
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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.


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