A Lesson on Poetics of the Body with "Physical Education"



In this lesson students will:

  • Cultivate an awareness of the physicality of poetry
  • Identify connections between the form and content of a poem
  • Write a poem using sensory details



The human body makes frequent appearances in poetry. Whether it's a rhapsody on the body of a lover, an ode of self-love, a cry of despair on the ravages of time, or a brief metaphor invoking the vital tissues that make us up—heart, brain, bone, blood—our bodies give us much to ponder and celebrate. But our bodies are more than just a frequent subject of poetry—they are also inseparable from the creative process itself. Our bodies are essential to poetry: they are the instruments that drive a poet's musical decisions. And perhaps even more fundamentally, research on the interconnectedness of language and thought* suggests that the very functioning of our mind is tied up with the language we speak.

Given this deep linkage between body and language, it's no surprise that poets who feel their bodies somehow othered from the mainstream—be it a function of race, gender expression, trauma, disability, illness, or any other of the myriad ways our individual personhood and life experiences manifest themselves visibly and invisibly in our physical being—may feel compelled toward nontraditional syntax, diction, and form in their work.


*For more on this, check out "linguistic relativity" or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (or just watch last year's Academy Award–nominated movie Arrival.)


Encountering the Poem

  1. Have several students read "Physical Education" aloud, asking them to pay attention to the physical sensation of reading the poem.
  2. After each student reads, ask them to describe something of their physical experience. Are there moments in the poem where they noticed their tongue, teeth, or lips; their breath or saliva; the heat in their face or the movement of their eyes? How were their physical sensations related to the text?
  3. Ask the class to describe some of the ways the poem changes in the various bodies through which it is voiced.
  4. Ask students to identify ways that the concept of refraction plays out in this poem. Consider both the images in the poem and the style in which it is written.
  5. Ask students to identify ways that bodies are made strange in this poem and what this strangeness conveys to them about the speaker. Consider what guidance the title provides.


Writing Prompt

Brainstorm a list of the routine actions you do every day. Choose three to five of these actions and describe yourself doing them in first person, present tense using specific sensory details. Try to include each of the five senses at least twice across the set of descriptions. Next, brainstorm a list of the most singular physical experiences in your life—sensations you can remember feeling for the first time or may have felt only once; moments of severe heat, cold, or pain; morsels of food that shocked you with delight or disgust; sounds or sights you can remember with laser focus. Select one of these experiences and describe it with the same care you took with the first set. Bring your two sets of descriptions together and break them all apart. Recombine sentences and phrases to create a collage of sensations. Title your poem with a concrete location in time or space where or when one of the sensations you wrote about (either routine or singular) takes place.


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