Sometimes we hurt others without knowing. At least verbal words are temporary and disappear into thin air, unlike written text that lingers and keeps on hurting, which is why writing can be dangerous. Poem “Deaf School” by British poet Ted Hughes is an example.
“Deaf School” is a poem about children with hearing disabilities. “The deaf children were monkey-nimble, fish-tremulous and sudden. Their faces were alert and simple like faces of little animals,” Hughes wrote comparing the children to animals. His intention was not to belittle the children but to describe their characteristics, but the problem is that such comparison puts the deaf below humans. One is not free from responsibility despite the lack of ill intention, which is why silence is golden if one lacks the confidence for proper expression.
Biracial poet Raymond Antrobus who was born with hearing disabilities got back at Hughes in a clever way. He quoted the entire poem of Hughes in his own poem titled “‘Deaf School’ by Ted Hughes” and struck through all the lines as a teacher does to a student’s poor piece of writing. That is all of Antrobus’ poem. As if it wasn’t enough, the deaf poet carries on with his poem “After Reading Ted Hughes's ‘Deaf School’ by the Mississippi River.” He points out that it is Hughes, not the deaf, who is “simple” and “lacked a subtle wavering aura of sound and responses to sound.” It is as if he says, “What do ‘you’ know about ‘us’ who are like the Mississippi River to compare us to monkeys? Say nothing if you don’t know.” It is such a sharp, yet poetic revenge.
A silver lining in the situation, however, is that Antrobus won the 2019 Ted Hughes Award launched to celebrate the late poet. He won the award for his book titled “Perseverance,” a collection of 29 poems that include the two poems parodying Hughes and hurt. The wining of the award will not make the hurt from Hughes’ poem disappear, but how beautiful of a beginning of healing it is.