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American Sign Language 1.2 COOLSchool

Unit 12 - About Town

Cultural Perspective - Deaf Poetry & ASL Poetry

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* ALERT – in order to view the videos at the bottom of the page, you must have access to YouTube. Ask your supervising teacher whether temporary permission can be gained, or watch the videos at home. If neither option is available to you, write your instructor.

You Have to be Deaf to Understand
- by Willard J. Madsen, 1971

What is it like to "hear" a hand?
You have to be deaf to understand.

What is it like to be a small child,
In a school, in a room void of sound --
With a teacher who talks and talks and talks;
And then when she does come around to you,
She expects you to know what she's said?
You have to be deaf to understand.

Or the teacher thinks that to make you smart,
You must first learn how to talk with your voice;
So mumbo-jumbo with hands on your face
For hours and hours without patience or end,
Until out comes a faint resembling sound?
You have to be deaf to understand.

What is it like to be curious,
To thirst for knowledge you can call your own,
With an inner desire that's set on fire --
And you ask a brother, sister, or friend
Who looks in answer and says, "Never Mind"?
You have to be deaf to understand.

What is it like in a corner to stand,
Though there's nothing you've done really wrong,
Other than try to make use of your hands
To a silent peer to communicate
A thought that comes to your mind all at once?
You have to be deaf to understand.

What is it like to be shouted at
When one thinks that will help you to hear;
Or misunderstand the words of a friend
Who is trying to make a joke clear,
And you don't get the point because he's failed?
You have to be deaf to understand.

What is it like to be laughed in the face
When you try to repeat what is said;
Just to make sure that you've understood,
And you find that the words were misread --
And you want to cry out, "Please help me, friend"?
You have to be deaf to understand.

What is it like to have to depend
Upon one who can hear to phone a friend;
Or place a call to a business firm
And be forced to share what's personal, and,
Then find that your message wasn't made clear?
You have to be deaf to understand.

What is it like to be deaf and alone
In the company of those who can hear --
And you only guess as you go along,
For no one's there with a helping hand,
As you try to keep up with words and song?
You have to be deaf to understand.

What is it like on the road of life
To meet with a stranger who opens his mouth --
And speaks out a line at a rapid pace;
And you can't understand the look in his face
Because it is new and you're lost in the race?
You have to be deaf to understand.

What is it like to comprehend
Some nimble fingers that paint the scene,
And make you smile and feel serene,
With the "spoken word" of the moving hand
That makes you part of the word at large?
You have to be deaf to understand.

What is it like to "hear" a hand?
Yes, you have to be deaf to understand!

Thoughts of a Deaf Child
by Stephen J. Bellitz, 1991

My family knew that I was deaf
When I was only three, and since then fifteen years ago
Have never signed to me.
I know when I'm around the house,
I try and use my voice,
It makes them feel more comfortable;
For me, I have no choice.
I try, communicate their way-
Uncomfortable for me.
My parents wouldn't learn sign
Ashamed or apathy?
I never cared about the sound of radios and bands;
What hurts me most is, I never heard
My parents' signing hands.

Listen to instructor comments.

What is poetry? How do people craft poetry in ASL?

Rhyme — The study of traditional English poetry takes spoken and written words and breaks them further into "phonemes," which are the units in a linguistic system originally created to represent sound. When sounds at the beginning, middle, or end of words or lines of poetry are the same, it creates rhyme. The most common understanding of rhyme is when the end sounds of words are similar as in dove and love. When the beginning of words sound the same it is called alliteration (e.g., big blue buildings), and this is also a type of rhyme.

For ASL poetry, the further break down of a sign into handshape, movement, palm orientation, and nonmanual signals offers the ASL poet many opportunities to rhyme in ASL. When you use the B handshape to sign BIRTH, CHILDREN, RAISED-UP, it is a handshape rhyme. More examples will be given later, but it is important to remember that parts of signs that form a pattern create rhyme.

Rhythm — Traditional English poetry takes advantage of the pronunciation of words with stressed and unstressed syllables of words in lines to create a rhythm. In ASL, signs are expressed with a combination of movement and pauses or holds. The pace of signing and repeated patterns of movement and holds creates rhythm in ASL poetry.

Line — In traditional English poetry lines are created by a consistent pattern of rhythm and rhyme. In ASL a line is also a predictable pattern of signs that may include specific rhyming of handshapes, movements, palm orientations, and nonmanual expressions and that is sometimes conveyed in a patterned rhythm of movements and holds.

Meter — Meter is the actual pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables within a line of poetry. Many people are familiar with iambic pentameter, which is a structured kind of spoken and written verse. ASL uses the movements and holds of signs to create predictable patterns. Although there are currently no widely used, documented meters in modern ASL poetry, creative signing like ABC stories and other "constrained" or rule-based approaches to signing offer a way to explore the craft of patterned creative expression.

Stanza — A stanza is a group of lines whose repeated units have the same number of lines, the same meter, and a predictable rhyme scheme. This form is more traditional; other forms of poetry like free verse do not employ these patterns.

Now that the basic concepts are in place, let's look at how a poet uses these tools. Although the result of creative expression (like a poem) is a complex mixture of many parts, breaking down the elements and studying them separately helps us understand all that goes into ASL poetry. It can also give us ideas about how to create a poem. The main topics we will cover are choosing and modifying signs, figurative language, rhythm and rhyme, and types of poems.

Sign language poets are in love with signs as much as spoken language poets are in love with spoken or printed words. ASL poets wrestle with signs and meanings, constantly looking for the right sign. They spend hours and days fine tuning a poem, choosing, changing, or creating the right sign that will convey the exact meaning they are attempting to achieve. As readers, be prepared to use freeze frames and slow motion to help fully grasp the signs, taking into account meaning, savoring movement, and handshape. See how a key sign interacts with other signs in a poem. Here we will discuss the choice of signs, changing and creating signs, as well as how poets carefully use chosen signs in their work.

Sign Variations
If there are several signs for one similar meaning, this is an advantage to the poet, because one of them can be chosen to fit a particular rhyme in a line or lines. The sign GRASS in "Hands" is a good example. Instead of the typical sign for grass, a more creative variation is chosen for the poem because its open handshape fit the other signs throughout the piece.

Non-Manual Signals Used as Signs
You can choose a non-manual signal to take the place of a manual sign. A good example is in the poem "Sit and Smile," where the smiling facial expression is made while the poet signs SIT. If we used both signs: SIT and SMILE, it would change the rhythm. Signing SIT with the facial expression showing SMILE achieves the desired effect.

Altering Signs
One or more of the parameters (handshapes, movement path, location, palm orientation, and nonmanual signals) in a sign is adjusted to fit other signs in order to create rhyme in a poem. In ASL poetry, the change of a sign tends to be acceptable whereas it is less acceptable in ASL prose. For example, in regular conversation, the movement in the signs for COW and ROOSTER is normally repeated twice. That repeated movement can be changed to once for the intention of creating a rhyme in a line or lines like in "Cow & Rooster." Another example from "Hands Folded" is that the sign, SAME-OLD-THING's movement is changed from both hands circling in opposite directions to both hands circling in the same direction.

Creation of Acceptable Signs
Deaf ASL users are the people who decide to approve an invented form or not, depending on the community's feeling that the invented sign stays within the established ASL structure. Signs are created more in ASL poetry than in ASL prose. ASL poetry is free to be flexible and readers seem to accept that.

Visit this site to see a deaf girl perform one kind of ASL poetry, using each letter of the word to tell a story.


F bobber floating on the water
I the fishing line
S holding the fishing pole
H watching for fish
I the fishing line jerks
N reeling in the fish
G the fish itself

Here is another kind of ASL poetry, using only one hand shape. In this case, it’s the hand shape for “one.”

Translation (bold words are the signs made with the hand shapes “one” in the order that they appear):

One person walking along. Another person comes along and they meet. One day they argue and go their separate ways. The first person thinks, “I’m lonely, but she said…It’s Valentines Day! Should we disagree? No.” He marches over to her and they discuss. “Can we be friends?” She discusses with him some more, and then they agree. They’re friends again, and continue walking together.

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