Sunday, June 26, 2011

Exquisite Corpse Poetry

Now and then, it's good to remind your students that once upon a time people wrote poetry as a party game.   I know.   It doesn't sound like a particularly thrilling evening to me either, but you may want to try this "game" in class.  

The whole idea of the "exquisite corpse" hinges on the mystery of accident.   Writers and artists made communal works by sharing in their creation.   The process is linked to Surrealism, and if you want to explain all of that in depth, you should.   It's too much for me to delve into right now, but it's fascinating for sure.

I think I saw the altered version that I use in Immersed in Verse: An Informative, Slightly Irreverent & Totally Tremendous Guide to Living the Poet's Life (

The play-by-play directions that you have to give...repeatedly...will pay off with some quiet grading time later!

Here's how I run exquisite corpse poetry in my classroom.   Students use college ruled paper since this game can use up lines quickly.   They must keep their work private and not talk at all.  

They write two lines of poetry (no rhyming) in which they try to carry an idea/ image across both lines.   They fold the first line backwards, so only the second line is in view.   They pass the paper to the next writer.   The next writer reads only the second line and adds two lines in an effort to continue the original poet's ideas forward.   The writer then folds back two lines so only the fourth is showing.   Sounds complicated, but you'll get the groove going after a while.  

In short, unless you are writing the first two lines, you are always reading one line, adding two and folding two backwards.

The first run goes for no more than 10 minutes.   After that, kids unfold the papers and read the poems.   This will seem chaotic, but they're having a good time running around the room sharing the poetry.   Let it happen.   Ask for any examples that students feel particularly proud of and read those to the class.   Discuss what works in the samples.  

Next, do a 15 minute round and reverse the flow of papers.   Let's say you decide for one row to be a group and pass their papers backwards, the last child running his paper up to the front of the row.   During the second round, reverse the direction so writers don't always respond to the same poets' lines.

Most kids will enjoy this.   If you have students who have a delay in processing before they write, this may be a source of frustration, not your intended party game.   Be creative and flexible.   You can find ways of making this activity work for them.   This is one assignment that I let kids opt out of easily and give them an alternate assignment, although I encourage kids to stick with it if I know that they'll love it.

To see a similar idea in the hands of professional writers, don't miss retired the option to read the book on line, but you can buy it at Amazon.   The chapter-by-chapter podcasts are free though.   This group effort will be featured at this year's National Book Festival in D.C.   To see the complete lineup of authors, visit

Art teachers, I think you know about this process already!   Let me know how it works in your classrooms.

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