Poetry in Sign Language

calligraphy in asl
"a splendid flash of concrete poetry" in ASL trace, Photospeaking and/or Photowriting series by Jolanta Lapiak at www.lapiak.com

Poetry is a form of literary art in language, whether it is written, spoken or signed. Poetry uses various elements and devices, such as alliteration, rhythm, simile, metaphors, and onomatopoeia.

Often poetry relies heavily on imagery and metaphors. In this sense, poetry and visual-manual (sign) language are somehow a natural complementarity. Merging them together is a magic of poesy in imagery.

ASL poetry and storytelling have been passed on "orally" from generation to generation until the advent of video technology in the 1970s. Since then, published works in ASL poetry has grown.

Dr. Clayton Valli, the American forebear of ASL poetry, embarked his research on ASL poetry in the 1970s. Before ASL poetry, there were some notable Deaf poets writing poems in English, such as James Nack (1809-1879). Nack's four volumes of poems are available in the Gordon Lester Ford Collection of AMerican literature in teh New York Public Library [Ref].

Translating an ASL poem into English is often discouraged or sometimes is not possible due to some nature of complex unity of the handshape, movement, spatial location, classifier and others.

In general, no interpreting can convey a signed poem fully. Sign-language poetry can be best appreciated by its first-hand experience. Then, discussion can be followed after listening to the poem firsthand.

Deaf poets

Notable Deaf poets are: Clayton Valli (1951-2003), Ella Mae Lentz, Patrick Graybill, James Nack (1809-1879), John R. Burnet (1808-1874), ...

Clayton Valli (1951-2003) is considered the father of ASL poetry. He's a Deaf linguist, poet, and author.


"Speech (and writing) have distanced themselves from the iconic -- it is by association, not depiction, that we find speech poetry evocative; it can elicit moods and images, but it cannot portray them (except through "accidental" ideophones and onomatopoeia). Sign retains a direct power of portrayal that has no analogue in, cannot be translated into, the language of speech; on the other hand, it makes less use of metaphor." -- Sacks, Oliver. Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, p 120.

ASL sign for poetry: HEART+EXPRESS
The ASL word for "poetry" or "poem" is approximately translated as "heart" + "express".

ASL sign for hearing poetry
A hearing ASL signer handed his poem in written English words but in ASL grammatical structure to the artist Jolanta Lapiak, as an extension of medium, to translate it into "verbal" ASL.