Touching the Wild Shape of Poetry

Well, this essay was supposed to enter a contest, but it doesn’t meet the specifics. So I’ll share it with you instead!

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Last semester, I returned home after a long day of teaching and found a large flat box on my bed. I could just make out a logo in the top left corner, the stamp of a local organization that provides free braille materials. I quickly grabbed a pair of red-handled scissors and opened the box. I pulled out four massive braille volumes and one small print book. In large, rounded capital letters, the print book bore the title Seamus Heaney: Poems 1965-1975, and its 230 pages corresponded with the four thick volumes in the box.

I had requested the Heaney poems in braille because I needed the reading practice. Though I learned braille during high school, I preferred large print materials and text-to-speech software. I regularly employed braille for labeling household appliances, school notebooks, and makeup, but I did not do serious reading in braille. The only braille book in my possession was a piece of choral music, collecting dust on a forgotten shelf.

Then, in the summer of 2012, I discovered a need to reexamine braille. Working in a program for blind and visually impaired teenagers, my co-teacher and I led our reluctant pupils through extensive touch-typing exercises. As I examined each student’s progress, I noticed that the students who used braille frequently misspelled words when typing on a print keyboard. To address the issues, I initiated a braille spelling bee, asking one student to contract a word and the next to spell it out.

Though the contests helped students address incidental spelling confusion, I wanted a long-term solution. I questioned students and vision teachers about existing braille materials, hoping to find a system that re-oriented braille users to print spelling. I found none. I decided, then, to brush up my braille skills; I hoped to develop a system to guide braille users through the convoluted field of print spelling. I began a routine and pragmatic review of the braille contractions I had learned years before.

The braille users around me recommended that I order a familiar book in braille, and I thought that poetry would be a less daunting choice. I ordered Seamus Heaney’s North, a short collection of poems I adored. However, the women who brailled my book could only find a copy of his larger collection, which included North and three other short books. I found myself running my hands over the extra volumes in delight. I took North to work so that I could read it whenever I had free time. Because I teach several introductory composition courses and tutor writing, free time comes at unexpected moments. Seamus Heaney’s braille volume sits in my office, waiting for twenty extra minutes between classes. When this time appears, I treat it as a gift. I leave my office – a space I reserve for grading, student conferences, and other obligatory work tasks – and search for an amiable reading space.

When I am looking for a good place to read a print book, I must consider the lighting of my environment. Because I am extremely light-sensitive, I prefer to read in dimly lit areas. I am unable to read print in any bright environment. Despite my long-cherished desire to nestle against an old oak with a volume of Romantic poetry, I cannot do it. Behind my favorite dark sunglasses, I still see words as faint scribbles on pale pages.

Remarkably, the arrival of Heaney’s poems in braille has changed my reading experience. I have been able to carry the book into any environment. Whether I’m sitting by a sunny window or in a patch of sun on a garden bench, I can comfortably read the poems. While on campus, I can carry them deep into the nature trails or settle into the wide bench swing beside the small lake. Since my hands are not disturbed by the presence of light, I can enjoy the warm Florida sun, casting glaring rivulets across the wide, white pages.

Previously, I had approached braille as a means to an end – a step I had to take before my students’ grammar could improve. I prepared myself for hours of dedicated reading, annotation, and memorization. I welcomed the task in the service of good writing. I did not expect a serious confrontation from the neat rows of small dots, pushing themselves against my hands. Thinking that I had already met everything on the printed page, I could not predict the wild transformation that braille would bring.

Braille has given me a new kind of accessibility – not just access to a text, but the freedom to experience that text in its most fruitful setting. What once functioned as a utilitarian method for labeling everyday items has entirely altered the way I read, imagine, and compose poetry. Still learning, I read slowly and carefully, and this deliberate contemplation, this meticulous immersion, carries me deep inside each poem. I think all poetry, regardless of language, is meant for braille and outside reading. The tactile act of reading braille poetry, of imbibing its potent words through my fingertips, is a kind of meditation. To read poems in braille outside is to allow my whole body to celebrate the ability to feel.

My interactions with braille poetry have not changed the shape of my daily reading. I continue to use large print materials in digital and paper form. But braille offers me the freedom to take poetry to the places that feed my creativity and fire my imagination. With braille, I escape the prosaic routine chosen from visual necessity. Breathing deeply, I retrace the words of the original poet, against the sun and wind.

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