The rhythm of breathing, like the rhythm of the heart or the movements of the body in action, is one of those basic rhythms of human existence that, however distantly or closely, inform the rhythms of verse. As I compose, as I say my lines over to myself, my breath is going in and out in a way I’m barely conscious of but which may exert an influence, however small, on the rhythms of what I write.
When I’m giving a poetry reading, my breathing is more planned. I’m not a trained actor, so I can’t go on for much more than about twenty to twenty-five syllables without taking in some air. If I’m reciting a poem whose line endings are pronounced, I will usually choose to breathe at the end of lines, though, unless the poem employs especially long lines, this will usually be every two or three lines rather than at the end of each one. More commonly, where I choose to breathe will simply be at a punctuation mark that suits a slightly longer pause, a pause which may well fall in the middle of the line and not at its end.
This isn’t universal practice. And there are some modern poets who think that the relation between poetic line and the breath is not variable but absolute. The American poet-scholar Charles Olson makes much of the connection between breath and poetry in his 1950 manifesto ‘Projective Verse’. Here he declares:
And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.
Let me put it baldly. The two halves are:
the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE
Olson was, I think, proposing something practical and something rather more philosophical-cum-theological. His practical proposal, based on his own poetic practice but also upon the practice of earlier American modernists such as William Carlos Williams, was that, rather than using conventional prosody and punctuation, a poet can position text around the page using gaps in the text and especially line breaks to indicate pauses. But, by equating the line with the breath of the poet he is also, I think, trying to show his poetry is in contact with Being with a capital B, which is manifest in breath – in the same manifesto he also points out how ‘is’ comes from the same root as ‘as’, the ‘Aryan’, or as we would now say Indo-European, word for ‘breath’.
Though many poets who use free verse continue to move text around the page in the manner Olson describes, my impression is that the majority who do this do so mainly because it breaks up the flow of language in interesting ways and because it looks pleasing rather than because the length of the line neatly coincides with the length of the poet’s breath. Or they do until they have to give a public reading. And then, if only to make us aware that this is poetry which comes in lines and which therefore is categorically not prose, after each line they feel obliged to stop and take a breath. The breath as oral line break.
So while many contemporary poets may have more or less forgotten about Olson, his equation between the poetic line and the breath of the poet seems to have passed into contemporary belief and practice. I recall, for instance, one poet saying in an interview that she didn’t feel comfortable with writing in pentameter because she was quite asthmatic and bronchial and thus didn’t have the breath for such a long line. There are mild practical objections to this view: pentameters are in some ways quite forgiving to the short of breath for, unlike shorter lines, they have a natural small break in the middle, a caesura, where one can, if one has to, take a quick gasp. But I don’t think the poet’s problem with the pentameter was, at root, a practical one. It was a consequence of the belief that a line is not only a unit of breath but a unit of the poet’s own breath.
Such ideas about breath and the line assume that the poet is reading and not anyone else, or at least that anyone else picking up the poem and it reading aloud should, to give an authentic performance, be forced into the breathing patterns of the poet. And yet this idea of the poetic line being a quantity of breath does not accord with much of the traditional practice of poets and readers. Yes, an endstopped line, a line terminating with a punctuation mark or a line which comes to a natural pause at its termination, will be one at whose close one can reasonably breathe if one feels the need. But traditional lines are the duration of a particular combination of metrical units, and these are not necessarily the same length as a breath. Moreover, some lines of poetry pointedly do not end with a punctuation mark; they are enjambed, they let the sense flow straight over to the next line without giving pause for breath. This is clearly the case with much of Shakespeare’s verse. A trained Shakespearean actor will not pause and breathe at the end of every line, but pause, and if necessary breathe, only where the sound and sense dictate, and this will be indicated by the punctuation. And where I would run out of puff after about two and half lines, they with their much better breath control might reasonably decide to go for considerably longer.
Rhythm, cadence, intonation, punctuation, line endings, pauses, breath. The writer in conventionally punctuated metrical form can play them with or against each other, let them act in unison or in counterpoint and syncopation. It’s a far more sophisticated treatment of breath and line than anything in Olson. So I feel justified in contending that, while Olson-style free verse was new – it shook things up and helped people, including Olson himself, write some valuable poems they would not have written in the old way and added to the range of stylistic possibilities available to poets – what Olson was advocating was ultimately an unwieldy if exciting new fashion, not a technical advance.
What follows is an original poem by William Wootten which he read at the Life of Breath poetry reading event in September 2017 (copyright William Wootten; published in the Worple volume You Have a Visitor)
Ask the horologist, ‘who understands
Why watches have faces held in their hands
And calendar girls grow shy when their age
Ends all their dates and then turns the page?’
Then ask the trilobites trapped in their rocks,
‘Who knows the time of the dandelion clocks?’
Dandelion clocks that you pick up to hold
Tell you their time was once shaggy and gold,
Wild as a weed and full of fine shine,
Tasting of salad and dandelion wine,
Handsome, they say, as the high hollyhocks –
The time of their lives for the dandelion clocks.
He shoulders that shadow around the dial.
See if the grains feel constrained as they pass
The corseted waist of the plump hourglass;
Then beg the pendulum hung in his box
To tell you the time of the dandelion clocks.
Dandelion clocks that you raise to your stare
Say cares and years have so whitened their hair
Or say their children are clung to their head
Waiting to thrive when this dandelion’s dead.
See how the children are shaking their locks,
Shaking the time from the dandelion clocks.
Calculate minutes or know the day;
Find out if molecules falling apart
Cry for a lover that’s breaking their heart;
Then ask the tics as they call to the tocs
To find out the time of the dandelion clocks.
Dandelion clocks that you bring to your lips,
This summer’s harbours fitting their ships,
Readying rigging for billowing breeze
To send them voyaging over the seas,
Could tell you the time, but how will you know?
Your time is here; take a breath and then blow…
Dr William Wootten is a poet and lecturer at the University of Bristol Department of English. He researches and publishes on modern and contemporary poetry in English.