In 1855, American poet Walt Whitman self-published his poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, celebrating the human spirit, the body, nature, the shape of democracy, friendship, and love. Among the twelve poems in the first edition, Whitman included “I Sing the Body Electric,” a multi-part poem of lists that revels in the body as a sacred vessel of the soul. The snippets of narratives and images in his poem exist almost as organs and systems within the human body.
For this activity, I asked students to brainstorm some language related to their bodies. They came up with the typical list: heart, liver, lungs, spleen, blood, bones, bowels, nodes, cells, matter, muscle, tendon, nails, hair, eyes, nose, skin.
Then we brainstormed about language related to their souls. They came up with: morality, personality, imagination, maturity, emotions, divine/eternal, vision, curiosity, beliefs, values, ego/id/superego, intelligence, reason, memories, language.
My purpose for the brainstorm was to identify how the duality of our bodies mimics the duality of poetry. A poem about mackerel is not about mackerel. We are not the total of our glands; we are divine. A poem is not just a collection of artfully arranged words; it’s a prayer, a lesson, a song about being human.
Secondly, I asked students to pair up and help each other draw the frames of their bodies on a large piece of newsprint.
Once secured on the page, the frame served as a vessel within which students transcribed their own celebration of body and soul, the linkage of the flesh and the spirit, the earthly and the divine.
Written without any drafting or pre-writing, analysis or weighing of poetic or rhetorical postures, these poems emerged over the course of three days of spontaneous writing. The pieces synthesize song lyrics, spiritual texts, political manifestos, bumper sticker slogans, lines of poetry, battle cries, and original poetic texts.
My goals were: 1) I wanted to introduce them to Walt Whitman’s poem; 2) I wanted them to write spontaneously without regard to analysis, prewriting, drafting, etc. and 3) I wanted them to celebrate their body/soul connection with writing. Here are a few of them:
The pieces were a success, so we stuck them on the wall in the center hallway at our school, and I used them for a gallery walk for other classes.