Kenneth Sherman’s collection of poems “Words For Elephant Man” was first published in 1983 and has just been rereleased by Porcupine’s Quill. It reads with the richness typical of a painting or a novel — so moving at times that I found myself weeping. It is hard to keep in mind that one is not hearing the actual voice of the so-called “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick, so strongly felt is the authenticity of the outsider who longs to be welcomed in, which Sherman renders with restrained, elegant strokes. I felt I had taken an emotional and visual journey — something I’ve come to expect from reading a novel, but not always from a collection of poems.
Laura Albert: What inspired the re-release of this book?
Kenneth Sherman: “Words for Elephant Man” has been kept in print for 30 years. It is a unique book of poetry, as the text is interspersed with etchings by the well-known print-maker, George Raab, that help to evoke Merrick’s period, the Victorian age. My current publishers are renowned for their exquisitely produced books of literature and approached me about an upgraded edition.
Why is the book pertinent now?
There is undoubtedly something timeless about Joseph Merrick’s story, which is one of compassion and dignity in an impossible struggle with misfortune. And yet it is particularly pertinent today for two reasons. The increased use of electronic social media is working to eliminate the sense of individuality that was embedded in our older print culture. I believe this book reminds us of the nobility of the individual; it’s an affirmation of our essential humanity. The second reason is subtler. Alienation is a product of any technological society and yet this alienation is being hidden, or glossed over, by social media. Chat rooms are no cure. Merrick’s tribulations are a reminder of our essential aloneness.
As I read “Words for Elephant Man” I felt I was completely inside of Joseph Merrick’s head. It captures the sense of alienation and longing to belong so very poignantly. You have written about the Jewish outsider in “What the Furies Bring,” which examines several Jewish writers on the outside. I can’t help feeling that your acute sensitivity to outsiders in general is informed by your work about the Jew as outsider. The end of the poem “Everything” reminded me of the Jews who originally ran the Hollywood studios and had the tools to tell stories but also accommodated the dualism of being a Jew.
Yeats wrote “Only an aching heart / Conceives a changeless work of art,” and I had plenty of heartache at the time I wrote “Words for Elephant Man.” Several things happened within the space of a few weeks: I was going through a personal crisis over a troubled relationship. My sister gave birth to a baby that was severely disabled. Then I saw David Lynch’s film “The Elephant Man” and identified with Joseph Merrick’s suffering. In addition, I was reading about Yeats’s concept of “the mask”: The poet takes on a character’s identity and employs it as a vehicle to convey emotions. Without the constellation of these various elements I doubt whether I would have written the book. It was an artist’s perfect storm.
We tend to associate alienation with modernity, but in fact it is an ancient motif. It is the theme of the very first story in Genesis. Adam and Eve are exiled and alienated from their original home and we, their descendants, are fated to gaze forever backward to Eden. Historical circumstance has rendered the Jews experts on the theme of alienation. We are a people who lived without a homeland for two millennia. When the state of Israel was formed, some worried that Jews would become too comfortable in their homeland and that their edgy, diasporic nature would evaporate. But Israel will always feel threatened and Jews — even Israeli Jews — will preserve their trademark alienation.
Of course, Jewish alienation has been double-edged. While it is painful, it is also a powerful source of creativity. Whoever stands on the margins has a keen, almost hyper-sensitive view of society and its culture. Without our alienation there would be no Spinoza, Freud or Claude-Levi Strauss; no Bellow, Sontag or Ozick; no Woody Allen or Larry David. I seem to be attracted to writers who are under duress.
In my essay collection “What the Furies Bring,” I examine the works of Jewish writers who suffered much more than cultural alienation; some are well known (Primo Levi and Anne Frank), and some deserve to be better known (Chaim Kaplan and Vasily Grossman). There is darkness to their writing, but affirmation as well. Kaplan, for example, survived the most punishing circumstances in the Warsaw Ghetto by keeping a diary. Titled “Scroll of Agony,” his book provides a vivid historical record of daily life in the ghetto; it also gives us a sense of how an intelligent humanist can endure such an excruciating experience. Kaplan’s equanimity, his adamant resolve to leave behind an accurate record of the appalling events, is, to my mind, heroic.
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.
Why was literature so important?
I came from a dysfunctional middle-class family. Reading and writing were godsends. They comforted me in my aloneness. They confirmed my innermost feelings. I’m not sure I would have survived the maddening tensions of my household without the grace of literature.
Did your family support your being a writer?
No. My family prized materialism and was suspicious of art. My parents feared openness and emotional honesty. Serious writing tries to get at the underlying truths and so they felt threatened by my interest. And of course there was the issue of livelihood. They worried for my future. In this they were right. Most artists struggle financially. It’s quite a trick to pursue one’s art and still make a living.
How did you find your “voice”?
There are young writers who immediately find they have a voice. Others struggle to see it emerge. For some it is a complex process. The Montreal Jewish poet Irving Layton, who had mentored Leonard Cohen, came to teach in Toronto and I was fortunate to study with him and become his friend. He was brash, opinionated and controversial. Imagine Norman Mailer as a poet. Layton’s voice was loud and satiric. My first two books reflect his influence. But with my third book, “Words for Elephant Man,” I discovered my personal voice. It was a voice given to irony and understatement. Sometimes brushing up against a strong influence such as Layton helps you find your way.
Why do you think so many Jews are attracted to and thrive in the arts? Especially with the drive our grandparents and parents had for economic security?
We are a people taught to revere creativity and affirm life. Our God is above all else a supreme creator. There are sections of the Bible that deal with the law and there are parts that are strictly narrative, but much of the Bible is poetry — the greatest poetry ever written. To read the book of Genesis in the original Hebrew is a mind-blowing experience. With the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, the Jewish poets set a standard for lyric poetry that is difficult to surpass. Proverbs is tremendous epigrammatic poetry.
As far as narrative poetry goes: does anything in Western literature reach the heights of Job or Jonah? Many of the early Jewish immigrants to New York and Montreal wrote their Yiddish novels and stories and poems in the evenings and weekends after their release from the stifling sweatshops. And even in the Warsaw Ghetto, where living conditions were unimaginable, Jews kept their cabarets and theaters going. They wrote their poems and songs and kept their diaries, even as they were being carted to the camps. In this I see an ultimate defiance: The Shoah proved that European Christian culture was by and large a death culture. But we, as a people, did not give ourselves over to pessimism.
As a Jew growing up, I was always encouraged to question, to explore and be curious about the Other. Do you see the arts as a way to live within another’s experience or to hold another way of framing?
Yes. As human beings, we are stuck with our cultural precepts, our social perspectives and prejudices. How does one break out? How does one get beyond the limitations of self? Drugs are a possibility, but they offer limited advancement. I think the most effective way to transcend ourselves is via art. Watching a play or reading a novel, you identify and your sympathies are broadened or turned in an unexpected direction. With poetry, the experience can be even more intense. As you read the poem you actually become, for that moment, the poet. You see the world through his or her eyes. You go through what the ancients termed “a metamorphosis.” Of course, art does not always offer a fresh view. Sometimes — and I think this is just as important — it helps you to remember some truth you had conveniently forgotten. Art has that therapeutic power to recapture your deepest self.
Do you believe that by creating art we invite the heart to go out and house itself in something other than its illusion of separateness?
Goethe wrote, “Humans can find no better retreat from the world than art, and humans can find no stronger link with the world than art” — a great saying, since it reflects the complex truth that for artist and audience, art is an isolating and bonding experience. The writer sits alone in her study, but in the end her book connects her to the many. A man sits alone in a chair reading the book, and when he is finished his sympathies for others are renewed.
What is the relationship between art and dreams?
To best answer this, let me refer to a poem I’ve already mentioned: Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” It touches upon many aspects we have discussed. At the start of the poem, the narrator feels “drowsy” and wonders if he’s been drugged. Then he hears the voice of the nightingale and he’s carried away to meditate eloquently on the passage of time, human suffering and death. Though his subject matter is sad, he’s carried along by the power of his language, just as the bird is carried along by its song. In the final stanza, the narrator awakes from his poetic reverie and regrets being returned to his “sole self.” He complains that his imagination cannot cheat reality, cannot undo the knowledge of death and suffering. And as he’s awakened, he wonders whether the preceding seven stanzas — perhaps the most brilliant poetry ever written — constitute poetic “vision” or mere “dream.” And he concludes by asking, “do I wake or sleep?” Keats is posing a great philosophical question: Is art an illusion, a means of avoiding the harsh truths, a kind of sleep? Or does art awaken us to reality? I am grateful that Keats made no attempt to answer his own question.
Laura Albert is the author of “Sarah” and “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” published under the name JT LeRoy. She wrote the screenplay for Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” and has written for the HBO series “Deadwood.”