Words for Elephant Man (Digital Edition)

Primary Author: 
Kenneth Sherman
Words for Elephant Man

Kenneth Sherman’s collection Words for Elephant Man delves into the fascinating life of Joseph Merrick, the titular ‘Elephant Man’ who came to prominence as a sideshow curiosity in England in the late nineteenth century. Sherman’s spare, captivating verse gives a voice to Merrick’s fraught and complex existence, and couples it with a genuine compassion quite distant from the chill of a gawking public.

About the Book


‘Man is a / fascinating animal’, Kenneth Sherman writes, and it is this fascination that drives the narrative in Words for Elephant Man. Written in the voice of Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’ plagued with a disfiguring condition that ravaged much of his body, Sherman reveals his subject to be more than just a living fascination. Sherman’s Merrick, acutely observant, is equally fascinated by those around him as well.

Using found lines from historical record interwoven with his own beautifully-rendered verse, Sherman’s collection triumphs as a haunting, eloquent portrait of a man whose body was both disabler and enabler, a man who was both a commodity and a salesman, mechanical and organic, and whose extraordinary circumstances overshadowed the remarkably ordinary desires he shared with humanity. Sherman’s Merrick is observant, clever and authentic, and possessed of a voice that resonates through the years and into the hearts and minds of readers.

Praise for Words for Elephant Man

‘Better than either the movie or the play, Words for Elephant Man delves under the pitted skin of John Merrick before emerging with a masterfully articulate portrait.’

—Poetry Toronto

‘Grammar, language, articulation and reference to machines and engines combine with the language of freaks, misfits and outcasts ... Words for Elephant Man is both graceful and a gift ... a stunning synthesis of art and craft.’

—Poetry Canada Review

‘It is the weaving of anecdotal fragments and epiphanies that gives the voice authority here. We can believe the poet behind the mask ... Merrick’s intelligence, humour, and grace come through in moments of astute analysis and celebratory faith.’

—Contemporary Verse II

‘Sherman’s subject has produced from him poetry as bare and original as Beckett’s best. Merrick is, by deft and and incisive association, a crucified Christ, a creator full of irony and power, victim and victimizer, ‘the age’s Doppelganger/its underside/its Hyde.’

—Canadian Forum

Read an Excerpt

In the Year of Our Lord, 1875

Father got me a license to hawk:
gloves, stockings, general haber-
dashery. Mother worked hours
sewing clothes to fit
        and still,
I was a sight.
        A small crowd
always followed me
        some bought
from pity
        some for the novelty

while some went on
at my expense.

        Man is a
fascinating animal,
        I have had
the opportunity to study him
from many different angles,

I passed a mirror in a hat shop
window and stared at myself
and the people jeering about me.

I stared and stared and then I
    not just for me,
            but for
the spectacle,
        the story.

About the Author


Kenneth Sherman was born in Toronto in 1950. He has a BA from York University, where he studied with Eli Mandel and Irving Layton, and an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto. While a student at York, Sherman co-founded and edited the literary journal Waves. From 1974--1975 he travelled extensively through Asia. He is a full-time faculty member at Sheridan College where he teaches Communications; he also teaches a course in creative writing at the University of Toronto.

In 1982, Sherman was writer-in-residence at Trent University. In 1986 he was invited by the Chinese government to lecture on contemporary Canadian literature at universities and government institutions in Beijing. In 1988, he received a Canada Council grant to travel through Poland and Russia. This experience inspired several of the essays in his book Void and Voice (1998). Sherman, author of the acclaimed Words for Elephant Man, and The Well: New and Selected Poems, lives in Toronto with his wife, Marie, an artist.

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