After completing their final exam last December, my poetry students contributed one line of verse to a collaborative writing activity known as the Exquisite Corpse. Exquisite Corpse, which derives from the French cadeayre exquis, meaning exquisite cadaver, was introduced as a Surrealist parlor game for activating and capturing the creative consciousness shared among a group of people.
Imagine partaking in a poetry relay where other poets contribute one line of verse, but you are able to read and required to elaborate on only the line presented to you. The line which precedes the line you’re given is invisible to you because it has been folded under the page. After writing your line, you conceal the preceding line by folding the page and giving the evolving poem to the next contributor who sees only your line.
Here is the result of the Exquisite Corpse experiment I conducted with my students (sounds like a mad scientist!). The students’ names are listed in parentheses at the line endings. It’s important to note that the students were not gathered in the classroom when they wrote their lines. Over the course of an hour, they randomly stopped by the classroom, wrote their lines, folded the page and departed. They said nothing to each other about the poem. Amazingly, Courtney, who wrote the final line about the sun setting, had no idea the poem had begun in a moment before dawn. Stranger yet, the second, third and fourth lines describe an auto accident, mentioning nothing about sunlight. Then, in the fifth line, the sun imagery suddenly reemerges in Drakirah’s contribution!
In the quiet space just before dawn (Paul)
the silence is suddenly shattered by a sound (Kristen)
of brakes screeching, glass shattering and horns blaring. (Jackie)
The car comes to a halt, void of all life. (Erin)
The sun peeks through the windshield, illuminating a heart-sunken slumber. (Drakirah)
My skin is warmed by the yellow rays. (Alexis)
They call to me, beckoning me home like waves to the shore. (Caity)
The smell of the water extracting from the salty sand. (Tailanaa)
A warm breeze envelopes my entire being. (Kenzie)
The sun could be my God. (Daphne)
My particles accelerate inside and I shine with celestial glory. (Sam)
The sun sets, painting the sky like an artist’s palette behind the old oak tree. (Courtney)
Try this exercise at a family gathering or in a coffee shop with friends and/or strangers. Launch an exquisite corpse poem with friends via email or texting. More often than not, the fragmented pieces of verse will coalesce into a poetic mosaic.
Here are a few first lines to get started:
- At night my parents fill the silence by
- Upon this morning’s warm breeze floats
- We suppressed the argument at our son’s
Author’s Bio.: Paul Carney joined the English Dept. at M|State Fergus Falls in 1988. During his tenure at M|State he has taught courses in composition, literature, humanities, men’s studies, criminology, and creative writing. Carney has served two terms as President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of English. He is a former fellow and board member of The Minnesota Writing Project, the state affiliate of The National Writing Project. He is the developer and coordinator of Ready or Not Writing (https://www.centerforcollegereadiness.org/), an online program that invites high school students to submit their writing electronically to college faculty for feedback and support. In 2008, he created the Roadside Poetry Project, a project that celebrates the personal pulse of poetry in the public landscape (Http://www.roadsidepoetry.org). A writer of poetry and prose, his work has appeared in The Lake Region Review, River of Time, The Sun, and The Minnesota English Journal. When he’s not writing, he enjoys collecting old radios, planting trees, listening to jazz, and watching The Andy Griffith Show. He lives on an 8-acre hobby farm in Underwood, MN, where his lifelong quest for Mayberry has ended.