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Robert Smithdas, American deaf-blind poet -“Blindness takes you away from scenes. But deafness takes you away from people.”

Hugh Dominic WStiles7 December 2018

Robert J. Smithdas was the first deaf-blind person to gain a master’s degree when he graduated from New York’s St. John’s University in 1953.  Born in 1925, Smithdas caught cerebro-spinal meningitis aged four and a half, and lost hearing and sight as a result.   He became director of Services for the Deaf-Blind at the “Industrial Home for the Blind,” and at the Helen Keller National Center.

We have a signed copy of his poetry book, City of the Heart (1966).  In the preface he says,

I composed these poems because my heart sang them to me over the years – because poignant moods, or powerful emotions, made me crystallize my thoughts and feelings into verbal expressions.  Sometimes inspiration was so spontaneous that the words came flooding into my consciousness and shaped themselves into song; but far more frequently I found myself searching through the labyrinthine meanings of language to find the most convincing words , and the most plausible rhythms, to serve as crucibles for my themes.  Yet I always knew the intrinsic essence of the thing I wanted to express in a sonnet, or a lyric, or the nobler passion of blank verse.

This is a clip from an interview theat Barbara Walters did with Bob Smithdas.

Barbara Walters: The lives of the deaf-blind have changed remarkably since the era of Helen Keller. She was never able to live by herself without sighted help, never able to be independent.

Bob: And today, it’s a tremendous difference, we can communicate, we can cook, we can go out and it is a wonderful type of progress

Barbara Walters: In spite of the good things Bob, what is the hardest part of be being deaf and blind?  What is the most frustrating?

Bob: At this stage of life, I am very used to being deaf blind, but I will admit that I miss not being able to see my friends’ faces or hearing their voices. Remember deafness takes you away from sound, from music. Blindness takes you away from scenes. But deafness takes you away from people.

Robert Smithdas died in 2014.

His poetry book, Christmas Blessing and Other Poems, (1959) is available on Archive.org

“Gently the snowflakes fall

Fragile and thin and light…”

https://nationaldb.org/pages/show/in-memoriam-robert-j-smithdas-advocate-for-the-deaf-blind

The photo of him above is the same as that at the back of the poetry book.  Unfortunately, when an external contractor tagged all of our books, the #### people doing the task were so slap-dash that they place the tag neatly over the photograph.

Please note, the chief U.K. deaf-blind charity is Sense.

“And woven loops of silence circle you; Though none may know The secret of your devastating woe” – Deaf Poet Annie Charlotte Dalton O.B.E.

Hugh Dominic WStiles12 June 2015

A while ago I came across a book of poetry in our collection, and for a long time wondered why we have it.  It is from a small print run, numbered 220 on nice paper with black and white prints to illustrate it.  annie Dalton 001The author, Annie Dalton O.B.E. (1865-1938) was born Annie Charlotte Armitage in Birkby, Huddersfield.  Annie was brought up by her grandparents.  Her grandfather, James Stoney, was a cloth dresser.  Perhaps the family considered it a stigma that she was deaf – it would not be the first time,  but any rate, it is only in the 1901 census that she was first described as ‘Deaf from childhood’, a decade after she had married Willie Dalton (1891).  This shows that we should use the information on census returns with an element of caution.  In 1903 they emigrated with their daughter Edith Evelyn, to Vancouver.

It seems that Annie was privately educated, and lost her hearing through illness when aged seven, and this was her stimulus to begin writing poetry (Campbell).

Compared with great poets in her lifetime, she has not fared well since, being seemingly forgotten.  Simon Armitage, the modern poet and translator came across her while ‘ego surfing’.  He says “it might fairly be said that she is no undiscovered genius.”  Wanda Campbell writes that, “Though honoured in her own lifetime as a member of the Order of the British Empire, the only woman poet then included, Dalton has not fared well at the hands of critics, in part because they have tended to assess her poetic achievement in the light of her disability.”  She also says “Her work is uneven but she is nonetheless intriguing in her efforts to make science and anthropology acceptable themes in poetry, and in her efforts to voice the challenges faced by the deaf.” (ibid)

The quotation in the title comes from stanza III of The Silent Zone.

Neighing north 001

You can read more of her poetry here and decide for yourself – Canadian Poetry.

There is a photograph of her here – Photograph.

1871 census Class: RG10; Piece: 4371; Folio: 42; Page: 29; GSU roll: 848086

1881 census Class: RG11; Piece: 4385; Folio: 158; Page: 27; GSU roll: 1342047

1891 census Class: RG12; Piece: 3571; Folio: 110; Page: 18; GSU roll: 6098681

1901 census Class: RG13; Piece: 4105; Folio: 161; Page: 4

Annie Charlotte Dalton, by Wanda Campbell  [Accessed 12/6/2014]

Annie Charlotte Dalton, illustrated by J.W. Galloway MacDonald, The Neighing North (1935)