Poetry is Breath!

3-Figure1-1When I hear others read poetry aloud I am often fascinated by the choices that they make about where to take a pause for breath. This is true whether I am listening to a poet read his or her own work, or it is someone in a poetry course reading a poem that he or she is seeing on the page for the first time. There is no real rule about where to pause in reading a poem out loud, but I think it is instructive to consider the possible factors that drive this choice. For instance:

  • A reader might pause at the line breaks in a poem.
  • A reader might pause at natural grammatical divisions in a poem (sentences marked by end punctuation or major clauses marked by commas, colons, or semicolons).
  • A reader might pause at the natural comfortable limit of his or her breath.

It’s that last possibility I’d like to think about for a moment, since it reminds us that poetry, more than fiction or prose, is at its core an oral and aural genre, with its roots deep in song and ritual recitation. The physical sounds of poetry, and the physical acts of making those sounds (and apprehending them through our sense of hearing) are a key part of the experience of poetry, just as the physical acts of facial expression and body language are a key part of how we communicate in social situations.

Language is such a taken-for-granted part of our lives that it’s easy to forget that it must be physically created, exhaling a breath as we shape our oral cavity into the sounds that make up our words. This means that, in oral language at least, there is a natural length at which any phrase can be spoken with relative comfort—the cycle of a natural breath.

Now, the duration of a “natural’ breath is going to vary slightly from person to person, depending on what kind of physical condition he or she is in. I’ve done a few tests on myself, and assuming I am somewhere in the “average” range, it appears that in casual everyday speech (normal speed and volume) I typically produce somewhere between twelve and fifteen syllables in a single breath (that is, before pausing to take in additional air and start the breathing cycle over again).

In some cases I might produce fewer syllables per exhalation (when I am yelling or cursing, for instance); or from time to time I might produce more, to try and complete a long sentence or a complex idea before I lose my train of thought. But my point is that there is a natural range limit in terms of how many syllables a single human breath can comfortably produce. And it seems to fall somewhere just beyond one of English’s most familiar poetic meters, the five-beat, ten-syllable line of iambic pentameter.

Now, even in casual speech most of our sentences are longer than ten, twelve, or even fifteen syllables; but we typically pause our speech for breath at natural grammatical divisions—not just the stops at the end of sentences, but clauses, phrases, even sometimes single words in a series, where we might stop for emphasis and cadence–and, not coincidentally, sometimes for a breath). (I’m thinking here of the way in which the casual punctuation in social media evokes the SOUND of dramatic pauses for breath by putting periods after every word of a phrase—e. g., “Every. Single. Time.” or “Not. On. MY. Watch.”, to name a couple I have seen recently.)

So there is a natural relationship (although not a one-to-one correspondence) between what we might call the grammatical or syntactic extension of the sentence (the number, order, and organization of the words necessary to express a thought) and the physical duration and force of the breath necessary to articulate that sentence orally.

As I’ve said elsewhere, poetry is all about getting us to sit up and pay attention to those things we ordinarily take for granted or pass without reflection. And few things are more taken for granted than the way in which spoken language is dependent on the physical cycle of breath–unless it is the mysterious ease with which we produce grammatical structures–phrases, clauses, sentences–whose operations perplex and mystify us when we are asked to diagram or otherwise analyze them. We become conscious of this relationship mainly when we find ourselves–usually by accident–running out of breath before we are able to express our thought completely and grammatically.

So one of the functions of the poetic line is to make us more conscious of this complex, interdependent relationship between breath, meaning / syntax, and the printed word on the page. Sometimes the poetic line corresponds to the length of the breath, sometimes to the natural phrase or other unit of meaning; but sometimes the poetic line dramatically FAILS to correspond to these “natural” but interlinked intervals (one biological, one syntactic). Let’s look at a couple of texts that many of us have spoken aloud, both individually and in groups, multiple times over the course of our lives. I have set them up as if they were poems, but have followed opposite strategies in terms of their division into poetic lines on the page.

Example # 1

I pledge allegiance
To the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the Republic
For which it stands
One nation
Under God
With liberty and justice for all

Example # 2

Our father who art
In heaven, hallowed be
Thy name. Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done, on earth
As it is in heaven. Give us
This day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass
Against us. And lead us not
Into temptation but
Deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory
Forever and ever. Amen.

The line breaks in Example # 1 pretty much conform to my memory of how we recited this text together every morning in my grade school some 50+ years ago. The line breaks correspond to the points at which we collectively paused. And while the lines themselves are shorter than the duration of a natural breath, they do reflect natural grammatical divisions in the text: the subject + verb sentence stem of the first line, followed by two complete prepositional phrases in lines 2 and three; a continuation of parallel prepositional phrases, followed by a series of very short lines that consist of parallel noun phrases, then ending with a final prepositional phrase.

The nuns always frowned when some of us tried to rush the recitation by eliminating some of the pauses–which we could, because those short two-beat and three-beat lines were easily combined into a single breath. But it is also the case that we were encouraged to recite these short lines with an intensity and force that took up whatever reserve of breath might otherwise have been left over after a mere four (or six) syllables. My main point here is that the relationship between grammatical unit, line division, and breath in Example # 1 is on balance more or less close and well-aligned, so much so that the recitation flows naturally, without calling much attention to itself as the odd and artificial performance that such a recitation–especially of a text such as The Pledge–actually is.

For the second example–The Lord’s Prayer–I have divided the text into three-beat lines (“Our Father who art / In heaven, hallowed be / Thy name. Thy kingdom come,” etc.), letting the beats rather than the logic of breath or phrase determine the line-endings.  Of course, in traditional metrical poetry the length of the line is everything, the backbone of the poem’s rhythm that is more or less consistent regardless of the length of the phrase required to complete the sentence or clause.

When reading it aloud from the page, the visual cue of the line endings tempts us to pause; yet we resist pausing because we feel the lack of completion of the grammatical unit at that point in the sentence. The visual division of the line endings pulls against our grammatical sense of where the grammatical divisions are, making us consciously choose our pauses in a way that Example # 1 does not. And somewhere in the background of all this is the question of breath, trying to pace itself and anticipate how many syllables the next exhalation will have to support.

The technical term for this effect—the spillover of a natural grammatical phrase from one line to the next—is called enjambment.  Its counterpart, caesura, refers to the placement of a major grammatical division, like the division between sentences or independent clauses, in the middle of the line. But these two terms are often taught simply as definitions, without much attention to their underlying effect. As I’ve tried to describe it here, enjambment and caesura serve to make us more conscious of the interlocking forces of breath, phrase, and the poetic line by exploiting the possible tensions among them. It’s a little like the way we become aware of rhythm in music when it becomes markedly syncopated—when certain parts of the ensemble start emphasizing different beats or patterns of stress within the measure.

It’s yet another way in which poetry slows down our process of attention by calling our attention to the stuff it is made out of—sound, breath, image, etc.—as well as to the meaning it makes as we read it. Ezra Pound, in one of his many literary manifestos, called for poets to “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome” (252). But of course even in music we are aware of both the implied rhythm (the tempo and pattern of stresses) that underlies and often pulls against the contours of the melody—just as we are aware of the natural breath limits that determine the length and intensity of the phrase. The point Is that these relationships are more or less taken for granted as a rule, and we only recognize their workings in a conscious way when they are somehow disrupted.

I’ll close with just a few illustrative examples. In the English-language tradition, there is probably no more familiar and “naturalized” form than that of the sonnet, with its fourteen lines of iambic pentameter and its typical structure of opening quatrains (either two or three, depending on the form) followed by a concluding volta, or turn, which occurs either in a two-line concluding couplet or a concluding sestet (again, depending on the form). In the opening quatrains at least of many sonnets (sometimes called the proposition part of the poem), the three elements I have discussed (breath, phrase, line ending) are predominantly in alignment. Take for example Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s ease hath all too short a date; . . .

In this opening quatrain, we have four consecutive phrases, each corresponding roughly to the duration of a comfortable breath (ten syllables, five stresses), and each terminating not just in a punctuation mark (question mark, semicolon, comma, semicolon) but ALSO a line break. The effect is musical, comforting, reassuring, as is appropriate for a poem in which the lover is proclaiming admiration and affection for the beloved.

Now let’s look at the opening quatrains from another sonnet, this one from the modern American poet Countee Cullen:

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did he stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair. . . .

First-time readers are often disoriented and confused by this 20th-Century poem in a way that they are not when they read the Elizabethan English of Shakespeare’s Sonnet # 16—and not just because of Cullen’s Classical references to Sisyphus and Tantalus. The first two quatrains are a single long sentence that spreads over eight lines, with the last six of those lines made up of a dependent clause that hangs on the subordinating conjunction why at the end of line two. In the second quatrain we see one mild enjambment in which the subject of the clause is separated from the verb (“Tantalus / Is baited) and a couple of consecutive stronger ones in which the verb phrase is divided by a line ending (“declare / If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus / To struggle up a never-ending stair”).

In other words, the line endings offer little in corresponding resolution of meaning or grammatical structure. Unlike the opening quatrain of the Shakespeare sonnet, the line breaks fail to offer reliable guidance in terms of when we might pause for breath if reading or reciting the poem aloud. The effect is unsettling, puzzling, disorienting, even at the basic level of what the poem is supposed to sound like in our ears—let alone the meaning conveyed. This is appropriate for a poem whose subject, once sussed out, is alienation and confusion, asking clarifying questions of God in a world that seems to make no moral or philosophical sense.

Just for fun, here is a really extreme example of what we’ve been talking about, from the 20th-Century American poet e. e. cummings. Once again, the form we’re looking at is a sonnet (fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, with a more or less standard sonnet rhyme scheme). But the enjambments in the poem are extreme, in some cases even splitting words up at the end of the line; and we search in vain for a mark of punctuation or syntactic clue that would tell us when to pause for an intake of oxygen. In fact the last line of the poem reveals to us that we are to speak the first eleven lines in a single rush of breath that violates both grammatical sense and the normal physical breathing cycle upon which oral language depends :

next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water


Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” 1917. In Pound, Early Writings: Poems and Prose.  Ed. Ira B. Nadel.  Penguin, 2005.



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