A Hand, I Sing the Body Electric, Jane Hirshfield, Lucille Cliffon, margaret atwood, Poems about the body, poetry reading, The Body, Walt Whitman, Yehuda Amichai
What has our body have to do with writing poetry?
We know our body intimately, whether we like it or not. There are poems waiting to come out of our body & its experiences.
Whether it is to describe, persuade, inform, inspire, illustrate, sing and inscribe words to memory, our body is a wonderful celebration of our history & truths – whether in good health, or sickness or dying. Body parts can be used as a metaphor (a poetic device), providing meaning and deeper emotional connection to the readers.
BY MARGARET ATWOOD
you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
First, any conversation about poetry and the body must begin with Walt Whitman, whose nine-part poem “I Sing the Body Electric” celebrates and glorifies the body in all its manifestations, whether stretched, flabby, or swollen. The poem ends with a litany of body parts, ultimately concluding that “these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul.” For Whitman, celebrating the body became a celebration of the democratic spirit of his new America:
The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred—is it the meanest one in the
Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off, just as
much as you,
Each has his or her place in the procession.
Poems about the body are often poems of celebration and awe, poems that delight in the body’s mysteries, its “dream of flesh” says Mark Strand, poems that wonder at the body’s remarkable capabilities—the hands, bones, face, eyes, brain, arms, genitals, and, of course, the heart, that “ragtime jubilee,” as Yusef Komunyakaa calls it. Whitman’s praise of the body—his insistence that the body was a sacred element of the soul—was echoed one-hundred years later in Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl”:
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!
Poems about the body are also poems about history, as poets consider the long geneology, the whole genetic enterprise, the body being “this coat [that] has been handed down, an heirloom, / this coat of black hair and ample flesh,” as Marge Piercy wrote in “My Mother’s Body.” In “Anodyne,” Yusef Komunyakaa declares that he loves his body “clear down to the soft / quick motor of each breath,” and decides his body is a steady reminder of history and geography:
This skin, this sac of dung
& joy, this spleen floating
like a compass needle inside
nighttime, always divining
West Africa’s dusty horizon.
Similarly, in Lucille Clifton’s well-known poem “Homage to my Hips,” the poet’s body become a metaphor for struggle and independence:
they don’t fit into little
pretty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
Poems of these sort are often forums for poets to write at their most intimate. Besides her hips, Lucille Clifton has written odes to menstruation and her uterus (“my bloody print / my estrogen kitchen / my black bag of desire”). In Corso’s “Death Comes at Puberty,” the poet writes about discovering, at age thirteen, masturbation. Yehuda Amichai’s poem “I’ve Grown Very Hairy” details the horror of a body doing things of its own accord.
I’VE GROWN VERY HAIRY
I’ve grown very hairy all over my body.
I’m afraid they’re going to start hunting me for my fur.
My shirt of many colors isn’t a sign of love:
it’s like an aerial photograph of a railroad station.
At night my body is wide open and awake under the blanket
like the blindfolded eyes of someone who’s about to be shot.
I live as a fugitive and a vagabond, I’ll die
hungry for more—
and I wanted to be quiet, like an ancient mound
whose cities were all destroyed,
like a full cemetery.
(Poetry by Yehuda Amichai was translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell.)
And Theodore Roethke’s “Epidermal Macabre” is a blistering poem about how much the poet dislikes his own body:
Such is my unseemliness:
I hate my epidermal dress,
The savage blood’s obscenity,
The rags of my anatomy.
Finally, poets are drawn to write about the body when the body fails, when it’s in decline or ill-health. Mark Doty’s poem sequence “Atlantis” details a companion dying of AIDS: “When I put my head to his chest / I can hear the virus humming / like a refrigerator.” In “The Surgeon at 2 a.m.,” Sylvia Plath writes about a hospital where the “white light is artificial, and hygienic as heaven.” Written from the point of view of the surgeon, the poem describes a body as a faceless lump, reduced to its constituent parts:
It is a garden I have to do with—tubers and fruits
Oozing their jammy substances,
A mat of roots. My assistants hook them back.
Stenches and colors assail me.
This is the lung-tree.
These orchids are splendid. They spot and coil like snakes.
The heart is a red-bell-bloom, in distress.
I am so small
In comparison to these organs!
I worm and hack in a purple wilderness.
Here is Jane Hirschfield, reading her poem, A Hand (2000):
Writing Challenge: Write a poem about the body parts (e.g. eyes, hands, feet) as a metaphor and/or story. It doesn’t have to be about your body or family’s history (from the first person experience), if this makes it uncomforable for you. You can write about the body’s experience of someone else (from a third person narrative perspective). You create the mood – serious, or sad or sexy, or funny or filled with nostalgia.
Here’s how to join in:
- Write a poem based on the writing challenge as described above. Post it on your blog or website.
- Enter your name and direct link to your poem in Mr. Linky.
- Follow the links to other poets. Read and comment on other poems. We all appreciate feedback on our poems.
- Link back to dVerse so others can find us too.
- Have fun!
See you in the poetry trail! Grace
Welcome everyone! Beautiful spring afternoon here. I look forward to reading your poems.
Hi Grace and all at dVerse. Thank you for this prompt: my body has given me plenty to write about!
Hi Ingrid. Yes, our body has a lot of history. Thanks for joining in.
Wonderful prompt Grace, and thank you for hosting tiday. This should be an enjoyable write.
I look forward to reading yours Rob. A lot of stories waiting to be told.
I not only focused on aspects of the body, but also on the amazing things a well trained body can do. This was a jiy to write! Again, great prompt Grace… 🙂
Hello Grace and all dVerse folks.
First, I really enjoyed reading this entire prompt. So many different views on the body covered in such diverse poets.
Tough times in my family right now…..reading and writing is keeping my mind occupied. I shall go out for a walk in the bright sunshine now, thankful for every day, thankful for family, thankful for memories.
Lillian, tough times indeed. My heart goes out to you. Walk in the bright spring sunshine. Like you, I am always thankful for all the blessings.
Good evening all and thank you Grace for hosting and not only thinking up a challenging prompt but also sharing so many excellent examples. I’ve had a very sore, swollen, possibly infected toe for three days now, which has resulted in a swollen foot and a fixation on feet, and I wrote my poem to soothe mine!
I am so sorry to hear that, Kim! Feel better soon! 💝
Thanks so much, Sanaa. I should get a telephone call from the doctor tomorrow,. Being diabetic, anything with my feet is taken seriously.
Fingers crossed! xx
I hope you feel better Kim !
Thank you, Grace.
Hello Grace and All. Your prompt and the lovely poems you chose to accompany have opened a floodgate. Thank you for the spark. It’s cool and rainy here today. A nice hot cup of rooibos and peppermint tea would be perfect right now.
That hot cup is coming up – smells divine too. Thanks for joining in the fun.
Loved the prompt, Grace! 😀 You have given us such a treasure trove of poetry as springboard to work with here. I especially admire “I sing the body electric,” by Whitman.
Heading over to read everyone’s poems. Happy Thursday! 💝💝
I had fun reading about body parts inspired poems. Appreciate that you are able to make time for our dverse community (with the time difference). Happy Thursday!!!
Thanks for the fascinating prompt, Grace! I’m so behind, but an idea came to me. 😀 I’ll be back later to read.
Love your poem Merril. See you in the poetry trail.
Good evening Grace and everyone. Thanks for hosting a very inspiring prompt.
I sat down to write. Intending to perhaps write about living with constant pain from my whiplash injury, or maybe the gory details about giving birth. But my muse had a totally different idea. And I ended up with a sort of love letter to my younger self. For some reason that made me feel really embarrassed. But I decided to post it anyways. 🙂
Thank you for being honest. I like to believe that we all have still, that young carefree self, within our aging body. Cheers to your muse.
I think the poem I linked qualifies. We’ll let the community decide. I need a large glass of wine, bartender’s choice. Thanks.
Our Canadian ice wine, long & slender and sweet! Thanks for joining in. On a personal note, I got my first does of the vaccine.
Not sure some of my “body parts” count, but…
Thanks for hosting the cool prompt, Grace!
Ron, thanks for your smiles and support.
I love this prompt, Grace! It was the perfect excuse to revise an older poem I had drafted. Always wonderful to revisit the work you set aside!
I believe it gets better with time and care due to editing. Thanks for joining in.
Hello, Grace! Wonderful prompt to get poet out of head and into body 🙂 Loved Jane’s recorded reading of what a hand is not. Look forward to reading !
Thanks for joining in. I so love hearing poet’s reading their poems.
ben Alexander said:
BTW, could somebody explain the difference between MTB and Poetics to me please?
Hi Ben! Poetics deals with a more general and broad range of topics – anywhere from music, a featured artist to a genre & may include poetry forms as an option but its really about free verse type of poetry writing on a specific topic at hand.
Meeting the Bar was originally meant to be about Craft & critique & about poetry forms. MTB now focuses specifically on learning about poetry and writing tools of the trade (& less on critique & feedback as this was difficult to execute & manage). Think of tool box & what you need to write better poems. We deal with explaining poetic devices and poetry forms. For this MTB session, we look at the body as a metaphor and as a story.
Hope this helps. We are into our 10th year so it has been a long journey since then.
Soulsongs of Sharonlee said:
I do hope I can find a way to read everyone’s posts today!
Soulsongs of Sharonlee said:
I think I better just stop attempting to join in until I get my laptop back. Mr Linky won’t work on my phone or the Samsung tablet:(
Thanks for the prompt. Busy day today getting ready for a yard sale. Advil for dinner tonight.
Sent from my iPhone
Thanks for joining us. Enjoy your day!
Mubashshira Rahman said:
This prompt came at the perfect time, I’ve been thinking about my body a lot lately. Excited to read everyone’s poems!
Thank you for this Grace, something deep about the body. I need a whiskey after that.
Cheers to you. Thanks for joining us.
Linda Lee Lyberg said:
Hello Grace- thank you for hosting and what a positively lovely prompt. I’m a bit behind as well. What with getting hacked on Messenger, and trying to keep up with NaPoWriMo, and little Jackson- I’ve been busy! But it’s all good. Have a great weekend everyone.
Hello Linda. That is a busy week and month of writing and keeping up. Take care and enjoy your weekend.
Linda Lee Lyberg said:
Thank you Grace. You too!
Helen Dehner said:
A most delicious challenge, Grace! Happy Weekend.
Helen, thanks for joining us. Love your energy and spirit!
Frank J. Tassone said:
A day late, a dollar short, but here I am, poets! Thank you, Grace, for hosting MTB! I’ll take a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, please! 😉
Here you go…cheers!!!! Have a good weekend.
A well-written and well-researched prompt, Grace! I can’t believe that for once I started working on my answer to this prompt minutes after it was posted and then forgot to link to it! So once again, I’m one of the last to post.
Thank you. I look forward to reading it. Have a good weekend.
Great prompt! I couldn’t get to it until the weekend, so thanks for leaving the misterlinky open.
p.s. I’ve found I can’t write if I’ve already read other people’s responses, so I’ve just started reading now. I love your poem about the scar – I know what you mean about that first time you see under your skin.
Thank you. Your poem about hands is superb – lots of details about one’s history.