Hand Poems: Tools of Industry or Works of Art

My Creative Writing 1 and 2 classes participate in two exploratory units on writing poetry.  During their freshman year, they focus on imagery and language, and during their sophomore year, they focus on different forms.  Even though they will be exposed to a variety of poems through poetry transcription and reading for poetry for pleasure, which is a daily activity in my classroom, the poetry unit concentrates on writing poems, not analysis.  While we discuss and share poetry as models or as inspiration, the writing, not analysis or explication, is the goal of this unit.

A lot of student poetry leans toward the clichéd, the obscure, and the abstract. To that end, this unit is designed to encourage students to plant their poems firmly in the concrete as a way to explore the abstract, to dig into fresh and original language as a way to dispel with the clichéd, and to spend time revising for clarity and sharpness to negate the murkiness that students often believe substitutes for profundity.

The body is great inspiration because we carry in the body the memory of trauma, genetic matter from ancestors, scars, tumors, cells, blood, etc.  We carry the germ of life and the hands that can extinguish life.  We carry glorious things like our pumping heart and sieving liver and inglorious things like pores that explode with dirt and puss-corruption.

The follow-up lesson to the Body Project is an activity where I ask students to look at one part of their body for an extended examination – their hands, specifically their non-dominant hand, since they will be writing with their dominant hand.  We read “Hand” by Jane Hirschfield and Dylan Thomas’ poem “The Hand That Signed the Paper” just to get us thinking about the power of the hand and its role and utility.

Then I ask students to examine their head line, heart line and life line on their non-dominant hand and respond in writing to what they believe their palm is telling them about their dreams, personal relationships and emotional struggles.  I give them about seven minutes to write this up, then we discuss our “fortunes,” which is always a creative and ridiculous conversation.

Then I ask students to start distancing themselves from their the hand.  To enhance this disconnect, I give each of them a mirror, and they must view their hand objectively as if they were viewing a tool or a piece of art impartially either in a hardware store or in an art gallery.  Students write for about 3-4 minutes, describing the item they see in the mirror, then we discuss.

Iphoney Bisnatch April 23 266

Then I ask students to wrap their hands in chicken wire and observe the metal-wrapped hand in the mirror, which will further distance themselves from their hand and hopefully provide them the necessary objectification to write about this  body part, not as a hand, but as a tool of industry or a work of art. Students write about 3-4 minutes, describing the item they see in the mirror, then we discuss.

Iphoney Bisnatch April 23 272Iphoney Bisnatch April 23 280

In the final step, they add to their wire-bound hands some element of plastic, either a plastic bag that I’ve given them or a green Starbucks stopper-stick.  We repeat the process, observing the hand in the mirror as either a tool of industry or a work of art, and we describe what we see in the mirror, then we discuss.

Iphoney Bisnatch April 23 301Iphoney Bisnatch April 23 305

Then I ask students to look back over their list of descriptions and select one or two lines that seem to have a lot of energy or lines that startled them or lines that unveil a particularly fresh or interesting image, and to write a poem using those lines and images.

Inevitably the poems become something other than about hands, but they benefit from specificity and concreteness that the objective description of the tools and art has  given them.

Here are some of their first drafts:

 Dog Eye Knuckles by Colin

The red dirt of my hands

always gets stuck

in the gears in my head

these spider fingers

always turn up

in the wrong place

and the scales

at the reach of my grasp

grow without my eyes looking

but I like these railroad veins

and these bass string tendons

caked between deep sand dunes

and the knobby knuckles

that pop out of my fist

like bulging dog eyes


Lost and Found

By Meredith

The person you almost like

but not quite.

The glove fallen behind the washer

The unfinished heart

drawn on a math book.

Left behind, like

ink running off your skin

during a hot shower after

a long day.

Spiraling down the metallic


The blood stained panties

abandoned in a school


The feeling of uneasiness,

swept under the

oriental rug.



Just In Case

By Strand


you are living a torture worse than

the iron maiden

the brazen bull

the heretics fork

the judas cradle

the breaking wheel

it’s an unmistakable sound,

glass hitting the floor,


hearts sound like that too

only as they hit the ground,

they bounce a little

roll under the cabinets

sit alone for days, weeks

shrivel up

and shatter

you can’t take a step back,

weigh your options,

and get it through your



that this is not healthy

your brain stuck in

eternal turmoil

your heart stabbed with

six thousand  ruins of glass,

a pocket knife,

and the needle you used

to tattoo my initial on your thumb

and yet you stay

you stay, holding onto hope, just in case

i change my mind, and

choose you.






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s