Poets Online Archive

 The breath. Essential teaching in yoga and all methods of meditation. And a word that frequently comes up in the discussion of poetry. The breath when one reads. Breathing life into a poem by reading it aloud. And particularly in the discussion of line breaks and punctuation. How to indicate on the page the breath or how to control the reader's breath.

The theory of breath in poetry has variants -

But for me revelation in poetry always concerns the movement of the mind as it thinks and feels and does so in language. For a poet, the thinking-feeling process is not merely immediately transposed into language. Rather, it takes place in language. For example, the way that a poem is written on the page is a score for the way that it should be read aloud, and the way that it will be experienced. Such concrete manifestations of perception are crucial aspects of the way that poetry can "reveal." I believe strongly that the line itself is expressive of patterns of seeing. I have never really understood the breath theory that Olson* talks about; but I think that line-breaks are determined not just by physiological breathing demands, but by the sequences of your perceptions. (from an interview with Denise Levertov)

* Charles Olson, founder of Black Mountain College: Olson's theory of "projective verse" and "open forms," which propose a poetry shaped by the poet's "breath" rather than by the traditional rules of meter and rhyme. The theory was used & adapted by Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. For his expression of ideas such as these, Charles Olson has become critically recognized as the primary and initial force promoting open form poetics in the early 1950's.

For this poetry prompt, we used the poem Yoga by Robin Becker (from The Horse Fair , University of Pittsburgh Press) and in trying to write we give special attention to the breath of the reader (aloud or silently) and taking special care that the line breaks, spacing and punctuation give clear indications of your intent. To further complicate the task, your topic must in some way involve breath/breathing. Yoga, meditation, exercise, singing and other topics offer easy starting places - but oxygen, resuscitation, or suffocation might serve as well.

As in yoga and meditation, the key is becoming conscious of the breath that we normally do not observe.

The Trick My Father Taught Me

Take three quick breaths,
each one deeper than the last,
widen your eyes before you pinch your face shut
and dip down under the surface of the pool.
Down here, all you hear is the filter's hum,
the exaggerated cracking of your vertebrae
as you fall, fall, fall through the four blue feet of water.
On the bottom is a liner and its face is full of folds.
Take one between your fingers and your thumb
and you can hang suspended there pretending you're a hero
like Tarzan of the Apes or Captain Marvel Junior.
When they run out of breath, you run out of breath,
push off and gulp down hungrily the hot summer air.

When I saw my mother still there in her bed
I took my first deep lungful of air.
It burned inside my ribs and I thought
this is what it's like to be buried in the ground--
no sound, no breath-so painful that I blew it out
and inhaled deep a second time
when they found the cancer there inside my father.
Not brain and breast and lung (that holds the air):
prostate for him-different spot but the same bad cells,
my sperm and egg  inheritance yet to come.
When I saw the white drain into my father's face
I knew that he was doing his old trick too.
We held our breath together till his cancer went away.

Take three quick breaths,
each one quicker than the last.
I've had my two and I'm waiting for the third,
the one that will widen my eyes and draw me down
under water where I will cling onto a face that's filled with folds,
where I might hang like a hero in a shallow pool of blue,
the summer air heavy and hot out of reach.

R.G. Evans


I was never a bishop,
but the world's a dream
we die in.  I breathe

into her blue robe,
take day lilies
from a jar

out of her room
to a pail in the yard.
Who would believe the grass

growing so quickly
between the bricks, the purslane
spreading like rash over the patio.

We're done with her dresses,
hangers and plastic bags,
the trunk of yarn.

Stepping over collapsed boxes
of shoes, I carry her collection
of holy cards to the yard, burn

the saints with matches,
that from these may grow
in full sight of her

in pure stone,
the other life,
continuing long.

Joanne Kelley


he speaks of spiritual awareness
with words as twisted as his body
sitting on the little rice mat before me
a daily ritual that he claims will cleanse the soul and mind of the
of his daily existence 'the journey' he calls it
i watch silently
the shackles on my wrists cut into my flesh
cutting deeper with every thought
my mind has but one desire
to reach out and pull the limbs from
his torso
to leave him lying there in that small prison compound unable to move
even one tiny muscle, to let the rats  dance across his inert form this
very night
he breathes slightly, eyes closed
a look of contentment on his face
legs folded one upon the other
a faint smile playing at his lips
peace and anger sharing one small space
on some small planet in the known universe
this paradox we call life

Ray Cutshaw


when you
look at
  do you
           hair so thick
can you
when I
            those hands
know if
I can
if I look
away and
          that black shirt
not to
  are still
  damn it
I tell
don't be

Svea Barrett-Tarleton


is warm and tastes
first of beer and cigarettes,
then lip, then tongue,
electricity, drums in my ear,
a guitar-string note being bent.
Your fingers on my spine pluck
at my spinal center and send
your breath
outward in waves towards
my fingertips on your shoulders.
I stop breathing on my own
and begin to focus on
your breath.
I'm losing consciousness
of who you are and where we are
and why you can never be mine.
I'm gasping for
your breath,
fighting to stay on the surface
and not go under.

Pamela Milne


All day I'd been thinking about breathing.  The courthouse steps
gleamed whiter than when I'd entered, like someone had been at them

with a pail of lye water and steam, and I remembered a dream then
where I woke up after thrashing through a dark marriage

to find myself still a girl nothing much had happened to -
my father still alive, not pleated into his dying space

on the kitchen floor (and when I took the time to loosen his shirt
it was only to give him more air for breathing, but he was already

forgetting, his lungs rumbling under my hands and settling
into quietness like a storm passing). And later that night the city air

seemed to crackle and thrum like an engine's third eye, and in the bar,
on the streets, breathing didn't seem enough for it to go on.

On the drive home a man's hands moved over me to brush lightning
everywhere they landed, and I was driving fast and breathing the dark

of my own desire, and I wanted him to open me everywhere at once,
I wanted to breathe into him all the secret sorrows of my life.

Emma Davis


that's what i am shooting for here
putting my stressors
under my thumb
with the very power
of my breath

i will not
allow for anyone else to control me
contain me
not anyone

not even myself


i will not allow the shortness


breath to come on so strong any more
i will take it back
from him
from them
from myself

it feels good to know
*inhale...deeply now...hold...two..three.four*

that i am suffocated no longer

by smoke
by him
by me
let go


Brandi Semler


Hands of her clock give rise to her tide,
and she genuflects before her god.
Knees kissing linoleum,
she places her head in his mouth
while sure fingers reach to wake up his breath.

Sucking deeply, she savors blank air hissing
from his wide yawn.
The metronome

in her chest ticks
to the rhythm of her final piece
as she counts
with measured
A thought

that this may truly be
her greatest composition hovers
near the ceiling, as stillness . . .
white as kitchen walls,
envelops the room,
and all ticking


and the only sound left
is his breath.


TAKE A DEEP BREATH...............and hold.

I am strung on a lung-full of air.................
While I'm there, I fear where this will lead
..............this time.
My heart leaps a bound........
that spot.............that clot
..............What if they find it again
and keep me grounded
...............another year !

(I smother.............On hold !
No one told me how cold
aloneness would be:
the fear of me..........by others;
the tears..........for myself I had shed
while lying in bed
..............all of that year!)

"Exhale...............but don't get dressed
...............just yet.
We may have to do it again.
..............You know how it is,
..............having been here before."
(I nod and I shiver and pray.)

The technician returns to say,
"You can get dressed;
but you must come back
.........(Dear God !).........in a year !

The doctor's impressed.
Your X-Ray's Okay."

........Out in the freedom of blessed air
I take a deep breath,
.............hold it there .........for a while,
............and smile.

Catherine M. LeGault


Longed for,
waited for,
Elinor is born -
another daughter,
another plate
at the family table,
a sister for her siblings.

Her tiny lungs
fail to grasp the air
before the day grows old
she passes through God's door -
breath-taking memory.

Cherise Wyneken


On a cold winter day,
i see my breath taken away
by the cold, chill air
I watch it there.

The breath, touched my me,
As it dies, I can see the impact that I've had
It flows into the sky, like water to a sea,
And I find myself very glad.

For though my heart has caressed that breath,
nursed it tenderly through my veins,
I have loved it with myself, and so I let it go.
If it comes back to me, It's mine to keep I know.

And so my life-force, chi of mine, goes into nature's flow,
And though I lose a part of me,
A piece of knowledge grows.
That I destroy life, break it down, watch it live anew,
That I make life mine through what I say, and also what I do.
That breath dies, leaving it's life-force in the air,
And I life life to the fullest, in honor of the breath that I left there.

Andrew Roth



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