In order to generate a greater awareness of concrete language and clear images in their poetry as well as provide students an opportunity to celebrate their bodies, I start this lesson by dividing Walt Whitman’s nine-part poem “I Sing the Body Electric” throughout the room to discussion groups of two or three with a couple of questions to get them started. Then we continue the discussion by reading a series of poems about the body and discussing the tone, whether the poem portrays wonder at the body’s utility or fury at its betrayal. I use Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Anodyne,” May Swenson’s “Question,” “Homage to My Hips” by Lucille Clifton, and “Epidermal Macabre” by Theodore Roethke.
Then students draw outlines of their bodies (or parts of their body) on paper, and I give them a box of words and lines of poetry to place on their outlines. They use the words or images to generate new images, lines, or poems that may or may not be about the body. The object is not to write a poem about the body, but to write a poem using clear expression and fresh images, possibly using the body as a way to enter the abstract and universal through the particular concreteness of flesh.
Lesson: The Nitty Gritty
First I picked up an end roll of newsprint from my local newspaper because the rolls are free, easily cut and manageable in a large class, but you could use any paper source. You’ll need enough paper to allow students to roll out a length as tall as they are. (The average height of my students was 64” and they need about six inches of white space on top and bottom, so if you have 20 students who need 70” each, you’ll needed a source that would provide about 116 feet of paper.)
I let students pick their partners because I want them to feel comfortable with the person drawing the outline of their body. This is a project I do late in the school year because tracing someone’s leg is too much intimacy for an ice breaker.
Once students have secured partners, we trek to a vacant space and cut our paper and start the outlining process. It helps to have a long hall with no traffic. Our interior courtyard halls at LHS work perfectly for this.
They then decide how they’re going to position their body on the paper, and working in pairs, they trace the outline of their body or body parts. For example, one kid did her feet in shoes, then in socks, then barefoot across the paper. One student did only her hands and feet. One did a series of outlines of her legs in cross-legged position. Another student only did her legs, along with her hands at the top of her hips and then an outline of her hips floating above the legs. Students traced out full body designs, frontwards, backwards, sideways, fetal position, half bodies. Two kids did a Twix version – Colin’s right side matched Meredith’s left side.
By having a concrete body traced on their paper, they deal with the disembodied symbol of their body instead of their body itself, which creates the dissonance necessary to write about something as abstract as, say, longing by using the specific image of a grasping hand. After drawing, they open their Language boxes that I’ve given each of them. In the Language boxes, I have placed ten words (the more concrete, the better) and ten images/lines of found text (I used highly figurative passages out of the Old Testament, but you can use anything), and they tape their words and lines on their outline and start writing.
Here are some of the first drafts of their work:
Same Me is She
Those birthmarks that no one else can see
are for me, and only me.
I got kissed by an angel where I breathe;
he still sticks with me.
That small dot on the bridge
Matches the ones who share what makes me, me;
that truly this person
that is she.
The curve that sticks out from my face
Has two worlds that it’s carrying,
Waiting to give them out
for the one who was made for me.
Most of my cavities got
covered in silver and pulled out.
This cavity holds what keeps;
As she, being me.
That same me looking back in the mirror.
That same me that could put lights out.
That same me stomping through dreams.
That same she.
a chest with no vessels,
meat with no bones,
fingers without nails and
a heart missing its throne.
loose yellow skin,
a ghostly lack of blush.
If you listen, there’s no rush
of blood against the walls,
no thumping against my chest
no watering eyeballs.
Someone spooned out my muscles,
And plucked out my bones.
My organs are all gone –
all except one.
My poor floating heart is still
Salmon lines webbed out
over yellow galaxies
ripples of skin
boiling out to blue parts
skipping over the seams
of two pieces scored together,
creaking to touch the other
knocking at the knobby core
floated in place by the gravity of blood.
Too many arms
and rips and rifts,
and waves sprawling out
scratching at another universe.