This week I’ve been finishing up teaching Hamlet to my seniors, and when he spoke to Claudius in IV.iii, he says Polonius is at supper: “Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.”
This prompted a conversation about the circle of life (cue The Lion King singing/humming by students) and also about how in the end, we’re all the same, just fodder for worms. Over the summer, I stumbled across a poem by Maxine Kumin called “The Excrement Poem” and I used it in class after we finished reading IV.iii. It ponders how death (or manure) can prompt life, and has strong, vivid images of the speaker mucking out the stalls on her farm.
Here it is for your reading/teaching pleasure. Consider using it with Hamlet the next time you teach it.
The Excrement Poem
It is done by us all, as God disposes, from
the least cast of worm to what must have been
in the case of the brontosaur, say, spoor
of considerable heft, something awesome.
We eat, we evacuate, survivors that we are.
I think these things each morning with shovel
and rake, drawing the risen brown buns
toward me, fresh from the horse oven, as it were,
or culling the alfalfa-green ones, expelled
in a state of ooze, through the sawdust bed
to take a serviceable form, as putty does,
so as to lift out entire from the stall.
And wheeling to it, storming up the slope,
I think of the angle of repose the manure
pile assumes, how sparrows come to pick
the redelivered grain, how inky-cap
coprinus mushrooms spring up in a downpour.
I think of what drops from us and must then
be moved to make way for the next and next.
However much we stain the world, spatter
it with our leavings, make stenches, defile
the great formal oceans with what leaks down,
trundling off today’s last barrow-full,
I honor shit for saying: We go on.