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