“You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”

Mary Oliver

Animals offer poets a mirror through which to explore themselves, an unwitting foil used to understand what it means to be human. Explore the role animals play in nature and poetry with the activities below.

Camp Activities

The following activities have been adapted from “Teach This Poem: ‘Characteristics of Life’ by Camille T. Dungy.” They can be done alone or with a guardian, sibling, friend, or partner.

  1. Warm-up: Look closely at the image of the snail. What do you notice about this animal? Look again. What else do you see? (You might also browse the book this image came from here or gather pictures of all of the animals listed in the poem and ask yourself what these animals might have in common.

  2. Before Reading the PoemRead the epigraph that accompanies Dungy’s poem. Read this short article about invertebrates. Discuss with a partner what might make invertebrates more at risk for extinction. 

  3. Reading the Poem: Read the poem “Characteristics of Life” by Camille T. Dungy silently. What do you notice about the poem? Annotate for any words or phrases that stand out to you or any questions you might have.

  4. Listening to the Poem: Read the poem aloud twice, and write down any additional words and phrases that stand out to you. 

  5. Small-group Discussion: Share what you noticed in the poem with a partner. Based on the details you noticed, what can you tell about the speaker? What part of the speaker’s nature drives them? What do you make of the question “What part of your nature drives you?” Can you answer it? Why did you give the answer you did?

  6. Whole-class Discussion: How does the epigraph relate to the poem? How might the poem be different without it? Why might the speaker feel the need to “speak for” these creatures? What is the impact of the title on the poem? 

  7. Extension for Grades 7-8: Imagine a conversation between two or more of the quieter creatures in the poem. For example, what might the damselfly say to the caterpillar? What might these animals discuss about extinction? 

  8. Extension for Grades 9-12: In this article, the poet discusses how the poem speaks up for creatures: “To speak up for the life forms of the world in this sort of radically empathetic way is, as you suggest, a kind of witness. It’s also a kind of activism. And it’s also a kind of love.” With this in mind, research more about biodiversity in your own community, city, or state. Create a poem that answers the question: “What part of your nature drives you?” What kinds of creatures might you want to “speak up for”?

Prompt to Do

Consider an animal you've encountered and describe what it would say to you if it could speakAll rights reserved. Excerpted from Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire (Spruce Books, 2020) by permission of Sasquatch Books. Written by Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs, designed by Krzysztof Poluchowicz.

Poet to Know

Camille T. Dungy

Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver in 1972. She received a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Dungy is the author of Trophic Cascade (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize, Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press, 2010), and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press, 2006).

About her book Smith Blue the poet Ed Roberson writes:

These are large, open-hearted lyrics about love: its pleasure, its neglect, loss and remembrance. Love here is not just parental and fraternal or of lovers and husbands, but a love for butterflies, things and their places. With a subtle variety yet balance of line, these are not ponderous pronouncements, but the voice of a graceful wondering about the world and the way we carry on.

Among Dungy’s honors are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Cave Canem, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, among others

Dungy is a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University and lives in Fort Collins.

Learn more about Camille T. Dungy and read more of her work at Poets.org.

Poems to Read

A Jelly-Fish” by Marianne Moore 
The Coming Of Fox” by Lucille Clifton
Sonic Fireflies” by Quincy Troupe 
Breaking Free” by Stuart Kestenbaum
Give Me This” by Ada Limón 

Term to Learn

This week’s poetic term, nature poetry, engages with, describes, or considers the natural world.