Poems about the Body
PostedAugust 18, 2005
On Thursday, August 18, 2005, staff members of Salon.com published a list of poems about their bodies. "What we all did is write honestly about our bodies: banged-up and stretched, flabby and swollen," the writers said. And further, they challenged others to do the same, to send in poems about their own bodies.
So we here at Poets.org decided to take up the cause and add to the conversation, beginning, as one must, 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"). Rita Dove's poem "After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed" is a meditation on both her vagina and her daughter's. In "Hair," Gregory Corso frets about the loss of his hair, and also explores both the erotic and vaguely disgusting aspects of hair. 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 all over my body. / I'm afraid they're going to start hunting me for my fur." 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. Marilyn Hacker writes about her "self-betraying body" in an account of breast cancer and masectomy in "Cancer Winter." 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.
But even as the body declines, there's still the possibility of beauty and transcendence. So says Mark Strand in "Old Man Leaves Party," an account of an 80-year-old man who removes his clothes in the woods, to the delight of the trees, flowers, and grass:
With so much before me, so many emerald trees, and
Weed-whitened fields, mountains and lakes, how could I not
Be only myself, this dream of flesh, from moment to moment?
If you're interested in reading more poems about the body, consider the following:
"I've Grown Very Hairy" by Yehuda Amichai
"Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou
"Poem to my Uterus" by Lucille Clifton
"Poem in Praise of Menstruation" by Lucille Clifton
"Homage to my Hips" by Lucille Clifton
"Hair" by Gregory Corso
"Atlantis" by Mark Doty
"After Reading Mickey In The Night Kitchen For The Third Time Before Bed" by Rita Dove
"Footnote to Howl" by Allen Ginsberg
"Cancer Winter" by Marilyn Hacker
"A Story About the Body" by Robert Hass
"A Hand" by Jane Hirshfield
"Anodyne" by Yusef Komunyakaa
"My Mammogram" by J. D. McClatchy
"Small Hands, Relinquish All" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
"My Mother's Body" by Marge Piercy
"The Applicant" by Sylvia Plath
"Face Lift" by Sylvia Plath
"Heavy Women" by Sylvia Plath
"The Surgeon at 2 a.m." by Sylvia Plath
"Epidermal Macabre" by Theodore Roethke
"Old Man Leaves Party" by Mark Strand
"Sketch for a Landscape" by May Swenson
"Question" by May Swenson
"I Sing the Body Electric" by Walt Whitman
"Dance Russe" by William Carlos Williams
Additionally, a great resource for finding art, film, and literature about the body can be found at New York University's Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database.
Have comments about this essay? Go to the Poets.org Discussion Forum.