Breath – The Gasp and The Silence


A short thought in response to Ben Lerner’s The Hatred Of Poetry 

Our bodies breathe in all by themselves and when we are healthy our body’s imperative is for the intake of breath. Our organs are high consumers of oxygen and the body ensures that they are provided for. We breathe in. We also breathe out. We often do this completely unconsciously, not even noticing the act as we talk, laugh, run, sing. We might become more conscious of the out breath during orgasm or as a deliberate sigh when things are hard or boring. What we are always more conscious of is the need for that in-breath. Without it our brain releases cascades of panic hormones and we become entirely focussed on getting air. The Gasp.

When we move out of healthy activity and into the active dying phase of our lives, take this to be the last few days of life, although in some cases it can be hours, our breathing changes. Our body is engaged in shutting down, reducing organ function and so the requirements on breath shift accordingly. We stop trying to breath in, the body breathes out consciously, deliberately but the in-breath is now involuntary. There are long silences between breaths, the heart stops and starts, the body expels the unwanted involuntary in-breath and at last, the last breath out, is the last. The Silent.

Breathing is life. Without it we do not live. Breath is life and life is breath.

Breath can be deliberate diaphragmatic control. When we sing, we learn how to use the breath to our advantage, to achieve the performance we want. We deliberately control the diaphragm to allow for a percussive sound, a continuous note or to scaffold long arias. In classical singing, we don’t want the breathing to detract from the delivery of the notes and words, so we breathe silently. Expelling all the air during a phrase, we mentally make the vowel sound of the next word, open the mouth to that vowel sound and let the lungs fill with air silently rather than gasping in the breath consciously. We are employing that principle of the involuntary imperative for breathing at work in the healthy body. It’s effortless because we shift our attention to breathing out, the singing, and the body takes care of the rest. Have a go and sing:

  1. a continuous figure of eight note wo/man until the breath runs out, then keep the mouth shape on the wo when breathing in, let the air fill the lungs silently
  2. a percussive ma/ma/ma/ma- breathe in silently on an ‘ah’ mouth shape ready to pick up the rhythm
  3. a deep hoosha to the rhythm of oars / /ho/oo/sha/ /ho/oo/sha/   Note the gasp-breath on beat 1 shown by / /

Reading poetry without attention to the breath makes our eyes sore and our head sore and if followed to the letter, will result in death.

Photo 19-02-2013, 14 11 26

Ben Lerner neglects to mention breath ONCE in his essay The Hatred Of Poetry, by which omission he does poetry and poets a great disservice. Readers do not want to end up actively dying in reading poetry, always focussed on the expending of breath, headless to the imperative to fill the lungs. Do poets focus too much on the words? As the reader gets rid of themselves, breath by breath, the poem can be left gasping for air literally, mentally and physically. Poetry is physical, as much as anything else it may be. So try singing it Ben!

Ben Lerner  Ben Lerner   don’t you know where   breath lives

Ben Lerner  Ben Lerner   don’t you know where   life is

Let us tell you   let poets tell you   life is breathing   breath is life

Let us tell you   oh let us tell you  life is breath   so learn to   breathe

Lyrics and composition by Alice Willitts

Listen to the song

a few poetry exercises

CONSIDER the choreography of space as breath in poetry. Look at the white space around the breathing and continuous sound in ‘Slowed-down Blackbird’ by Alice Oswald (from Falling Awake Published by W.W. Norton, 2016)

CONSIDER what happens to your breathing when you read Danez Smith’s ‘. . . nigga’ (even in the title), (from Don’t Call Us Dead published by Graywolf Press, 2017)

CONSIDER the one breath approach of the Haiku (for example Haiku 150 by Basho, On Love and Barley, Haiku of Basho translated by Lucien Stryk, published by Penguin, 1985)


Further Reading on this subject:

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook, a prose guide to understanding and writing poetry, Mariner, 1994. The sections on Sound and The Line are particularly relevant to breath and flow but this excerpt from Revision is also useful.  “A caution: there are poems that are packed full of interesting and beautiful lines – metaphors on top of metaphors – details depending from details. Such poems slide this way and that way, they never say something but they say it twice, or thrice. Clearly they are very clever poems. Forsaken however in such writing is the pace – the energy between start and finish, the sense of flow, movement, and integrity. Finally the great weight of its glittering pulls it down.”

Gary Snyder – Just One Breath: The Practice of Poetry and Meditation

All One Breath, John Burnside, Jonathan Cape, 2014. ‘master of the moment’ Burnside does not treat white space as active. Gerry Murphy’s poem Poem In One Breath

Projective Verse, Charles Olsen, Poetry in Theory, ed. Jon Cook, Blackwell, 2004

concerned with transference of poetic energy from source to poem.

“Olson argues that the breath should be a poet’s central concern, rather than rhyme, meter, and sense. To listen closely to the breath, Olson states, “is to engage speech where it is least careless—and least logical.” The syllable and the line are the two units led by, respectively, the ear and the breath:

“the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE

the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE”

Olson argues against a lazy reliance on simile and description, which can drain a poem of energy, and proposes that syntax be shaped by sound rather than sense, with nuances of breath and motion to be conveyed to the reader through typographical means.”

The Breathing, Denise Levertov.

Poetry and Narrative in Performance, Oliver, Douglas, Palgrave Macmillan, 1989

William Carlos Williams: Triadic-line Verse – An Analysis if its Prosidy, Berry, Eleanor, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol 35, no. 3, 1989

“The variable foot has been taken as (1) a temporal unit, each step of the triadic line being equal in duration to every other (Donaoghue, Wheatherhead, Breslin); (2) a stress-based unit, each step of the triadic line containing a single major stress (Duncan, Hedges); (3) a syntactical unit, each step of the triadic line being a single complete phrase or clause (Solt, Hofstadter); (4) a unit of meaning or attention (Goodman, Hofstadter); (5) a unit of phrasing in reading, the triadic lineation constituting a score for performance (Wagner); and (6) a visual unit (Shapiro, Perloff, Sayre, Cushman).” p 364

A Sense of Measure by Robert Creeley, Poetry in Theory, ed. Jon Cook, Blackwell, 2004 concerned with ‘measure’ as a music in poetry, that poems ‘derive from some deeper complex of activity’ and produce ‘a coherence which no other means can discover’.







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