One of the major misconceptions with movements like #DisruptTexts and #TeachLivingPoets is that the urgency of diversifying and updating the literary canon requires us to abandon classics entirely. Even a cursory look at the mission and goals of these organizations, though, makes clear that both movements have a vested interest in broadening the literature presented in classrooms, not in a blanket elimination of commonly taught or canonized texts. Another misconception is that classic poetry is largely irrelevant in today’s cultural moment. This month, I want to address both of these misconceptions and offer one way to increase representation in the curriculum while also enlightening students to new layers in classical poetry.
Many literature teachers are likely familiar with Walt Whitman’s magnum opus, Leaves of Grass. The poems are often long, unbridled and difficult for young readers to access. But they are also often controversial, as much for their style as for their content. Whitman wrote with the expressed goal to establish himself as the quintessential American poet, yet he eschewed convention and publishing standards. Despite its girth, Leaves of Grass resembles more the self-published chapbook than a traditionally published collection in terms of creative process. Whitman’s determination to maintain control of his verse and its publication are strong evidence that his departure from previous poetic traditions are an act of resistance.
“I Sing the Body Electric” serves as an excellent example of this resistance. Whitman keenly addresses the body politic, directly opposing attempts to minimize or marginalize the power of the corporeal. He also explicitly references the commodification of the body at slave auction and tackles 19th century perceptions of sexuality. The problem, of course, is that the poem is lengthy and dense. It requires a certain stamina and willingness to be uncomfortable, confused even. If your students are anything like mine, this can be a difficult thing to navigate. When I want them to access a particularly challenging or nuanced text, I try to pair it with a more accessible contemporary text. In this case, Andrea Gibson’s “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power’s Out” is a fantastic option.
Before diving into a lesson, though, it’s important to acknowledge that Whitman is a controversial and problematic figure in American literature. Some of his problematic language is in “I Sing the Body Electric,” and educators may feel compelled to censor these sections or frame them more deliberately. One reason I pair the poem with Gibson’s response is that Gibson carries on the legacy of what Whitman attempted in celebrating all bodies. Gibson’s version is more culturally responsive and inclusive, inviting discussion into the limitations of Whitman’s perceptions of the body, who determines the worth of specific bodies and how society uses language to establish a hierarchy of humanity. For me, Whitman remains an important figure, one that poets of color often expressed a conflicted relationship with. On one hand, he is decidedly racist and misogynistic. But he also helped establish queer poetics in the American literary tradition. Incorporating Whitman into the classroom requires nuance and critical inquiry, but his work undoubtedly serves a vital role in modern poetics that merits at least some attention.
First, some frontloading you might consider:
I try not to provide too much in the way of background information at the beginning of a poetry lesson, in large part because I don’t want to influence interpretations of the text. I prefer students to respond organically, and to embrace the face that poems offer many experiences to many readers. These experiences are all valid, so long as they are grounded in the text. That said, there are a couple of things that I think students should know about these poems and their authors up front:
- Whitman uses the word electric in the 19th century. Throughout much of Whitman’s life, electric most often referred to the attraction between two things created by friction.
- Andrea Gibson is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. It’s important that students respect the gender identities of the authors they discuss, and particularly applicable to this lesson.
- Gibson has Lyme disease, a chronic illness that they allude to in their poem. This, as well as the genetic affliction their mother experiences, are directly related to the poem.
- Both Whitman and Gibson are LGBTQ+, and their lived experiences are inherently politicized because of this.
Framing the Lesson:
First, I ask students to follow along as I play an audio version of Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” (there are many available, so choose your favorite or read it aloud yourself!). At the end of the poem, students will have 2 minutes to respond to the poem. This is free association writing, so it’s imperative that they keep pen(cil) to page. No filters. No agendas.
Next, students do the same with Andrea Gibson’s “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power’s Out.” There are audio and live performance versions of the poem available. Students tend to react best to performance, so I use this option whenever possible. Again, students participate in a 2 minute response to the poem.
When I open the lesson up to discussion, I focus first on Gibson’s poem. The goal is to get students to identify key elements of the poem that will help them work backwards into Whitman’s poem. Some discussion questions I might use to spark and/or renew discussion are:
- What is the effect of natural imagery (storm, wheelbarrow, etc.) in the opening stanza? How does this relate to the body?
- What do we learn about Gibson in the second stanza? Does this information change the way we think about the first stanza?
- Gibson addresses gender nonconformity and sexual orientation in this poem. How do they connect these ideas back to the physical body?
- What is implicit in the sun’s assertion that “it hurts to become”?
- Gibson has described this as a love letter to their body. What do they choose to celebrate? Are these images you would expect in a love poem about the physical form? Why or why not?
Students should also note the use of anaphora at the close of Gibson’s poem and the way energy grows with each statement (this will be important when they dig into Whitman’s piece).
Once students have a firm understanding of “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power’s Out,” they will turn their attention back to Whitman’s piece. To get things started, I like to ask who feels like they understand the poem better than they did at the beginning of class. I then encourage the students who raise their hands to share why they think that is. Hopefully, one of them articulates how Gibson’s poem seems to respond to or be about Whitman’s poem.
Since Whitman’s piece is quite long, students may require cues to recognize specific points of comparison and departure. Here are some questions I make use of:
- What is Whitman trying to understand in the first section? Do you think the body and soul are separate? Does Whitman offer an answer to any of his questions?
- Whitman speaks in binary terms (man/woman). Do his images limit celebrations of the body to cisgender forms? What in the poem makes you feel this way?
- How do the third and fourth sections affect our understanding of the poem? What does Whitman seem to be arguing in these stanzas?
- Sections 5-8 uses parallelism to discuss first the corporeal form and then the presence of Black bodies on the auction block. What is surprising about these stanzas? Are Whitman’s stanzas indicative of what you’d expect from a white man during the Civil War era? Why or why not?
- Compare the final section of Whitman’s poem to Gibson’s poem. What do you notice? In what ways are they similar? How do the two authors diverge?
- Look at Gibson’s addition of the phrase “Especially When My Power’s Out,” in the title. What does this mean in the context of both poems? How is Gibson’s in conversation with Whitman’s?
There are several ways to close out the lesson, depending on your goal. Here are a few prompts I’ve used:
Use these poems as a guide to write your own love letter to the body. Your title should begin with the phrase “I Sing the Body Electric” and add a phrase that contextualizes your specific poem.
Craft a formal response to these poems based on our discussions today. Your response should make use of lines from both poems and reflect a thorough understanding of the ways in which both authors engage the body through their respective poems.
The physical body is a political act. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Use the poems discussed in class to frame your argument. What do the authors seem to believe about the body? How does each author employ creative expression to respond to their respective sociocultural moments?
One of the fun things about teaching a classic and widely-read poem like “I Sing the Body Electric” is that contemporary retoolings are readily available. In addition to Gibson’s poem, you might make use of some of these:
“I Sing the Body Electric,” by Ray Bradbury (short story)
I Sing the Body Electric, by Weather Report (jazz album)
“I Sing the Body Electric,” included in Fame (song)
“Body Electric,” by Lana del Ray (song)