Journeying through Hell, the speaker of Dante’s Inferno finds himself enveloped in ‘dark and fatty air’, as ‘Soul-wearied creatures […] breathless, speak’, their ‘hands [seeking] remedies for burning air’. In Dante’s vision, Hell is a place where the air is thick, hot, and dirty, and where breathing is close and difficult. In his 2018 book Breathing: Chaos and Poetry, the Italian philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi observes that ‘everybody is now in hell’. This world, for Berardi, is defined by breathlessness: ‘Physical and psychological breathlessness everywhere, in the megacities choked by pollution, in the precarious social condition of the majority of exploited workers, in the pervading fear of violence, war, and aggression’.
At the close of 2019, breathlessness became a major global health concern with the outbreak of COVID-19. Invading and attacking the respiratory system, the virus causes shortness of breath and can lead to respiratory failure. But the pandemic also taught us something else: to fear the act of breathing together. ‘When breathing together grew dangerous,’ writes Berardi, ‘everybody was obliged to breathe alone and the rhythm of individual respiration was obliged to follow the pace of economic competition’. Berardi is writing, not about COVID-19, but about the AIDS crisis, and the misguided culture of fear that surrounded collective breathing. In 2020, when our breath really did become a dangerous vector in the transmission of an air-borne disease, this ‘rhythm of individual respiration’ became a reality as large numbers of the global population isolated in their homes. It wasn’t simply that we were alone, it was that we had migrated into virtual space, where breath lost its meaning, where the individual trumped the collective, and where the rhythm of Berardi’s ‘economic competition’ thrived.
Crises of breath, of breathing, of breathlessness – not only those caused by a respiratory virus, but also those engendered by multiple forms of social oppression, ecological disaster, air pollution, and financial chokehold – define our cultural, social, and environmental moment and threaten the health of individual bodies, of bodies politic, and of the planet. In the wake of COVID-19 – this generation’s most tangible, most universal prism of breathlessness – breathing has become a battleground, a site of global significance, and a matter of urgent concern, which we must address if we are to reclaim a future of breathing, safely, together. As Timothy Choy writes, the present moment ‘roars with so many multiple, overlapping, resonating, and yet incommensurate callings-out of respiratory distress and systemic breathing disorderings, as well as agitations for somethings-else’. In this essay, I turn to poetry as one such ‘agitating’ force that is, by its very nature, an attempt to articulate ‘something-else’.
In her 1965 essay, ‘Some Notes on Organic Form’, the poet Denise Levertov articulates the connection between breath and poetry through the term ‘inspiration’. ‘To meditate’, Levertov writes, ‘is “to keep the mind in a state of contemplation”; its synonym is “to muse,” and to muse comes from a word meaning “to stand with open mouth” – not so comical if we think of “inspiration” – to breathe in’. Etymologically tied to the term ‘spirit’ (from the Latin spirare), which migrated into Western thought from the Greek pneuma, meaning ‘the life breath of the cosmos’, the doubly signifying term ‘inspiration’ is historically embedded in poetry, not only as the driving force behind the poetic imagination (that is, to be inspired), but as the force that drives words into their vocalised existence (in other words, the breath).
Levertov herself was inspired by Charles Olson, whose 1950 manifesto ‘Projective Verse’ would establish a ‘New American’ breath-poetic in the decades after the Second World War. Olson writes: ‘Verse now, 1950, if it is to go ahead, if it is to be of essential use, must, I take it, catch up and put into itself certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings’. According to Olson, there are two competing processes of poetic composition: ‘the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE’ and ‘the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE’, and it is to the latter, he says, that poets must attend. This is because, as Olson explains:
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.
Olson’s breathless syntax works as hard as the words themselves: the breathing of the ‘man who writes’ is audible in every panting comma, every hyphenated halt and stutter, and every hushed, parenthetical aside.
In his 2016 Robert Creeley Lecture on Poetry and Poetics, ‘Breath and Precarity’, the poet Nathaniel Mackey reads Olson’s ‘“New American” poetics of breath’ as ‘primarily a figurative, theoretical discourse’:
Taken literally, it merely states or restates the self-evident: verbal enunciation has to accommodate the speaker’s need to breathe. Taken otherwise, it animates thought, encourages thought to unbind what’s bound up in the self-evident. It was, among other things, a return to basics during a post-traumatic period […].
Breath is both at the margin and at the centre of language – it is, in a sense, speech without words, speech without meaning – but it also gives meaning to language, by giving oral (and aural) shape to words. This much, as Mackey notes, may be ‘self-evident’, but in drawing attention to it we begin to hear, to sound, even to catch the breath of the poem.
In our own ‘post-traumatic’ moment in the wake of COVID-19, poetic breath becomes a subject for anxious attention, not only in order to highlight our cultural crisis of breathlessness, but also to help articulate solutions to it. This is because the unbinding of thought from the self-evident that Mackey names here is poetry’s essential force: the capacity to unpick conventional sense to produce new meanings, new connections, new possibilities – or, to recall Choy’s terms, to ‘agitate’ for a ‘something-else’ – in ways that are not merely linguistic but fundamentally corporeal and bound up with the rhythm of our breath.
Amidst the breathless hell of our precarious social and economic condition, Berardi does find space to breathe: in poetry. Like Dante, who in Paradiso discovers ‘eternal breathing’, Berardi returns to ‘the metaphor of poetry as the only line of escape from suffocation’: ‘only poetry, as the excess of semiotic exchange, can reactivate breathing’. Poetry frees us from suffocation, then, not only as the excess of semiotic exchange – words cut loose from what Berardi terms the ‘abstract domination of financial absolutism’ – but also as an excess of somatic exchange between writer and reader. As Lisa Robertson writes in an essay on Dante and vernacular language:
The poem is the speech of citizenship. The poem distributes itself according to the necessity of subjects to begin, to begin speaking to anybody, simply because of the perception of continuous co-embodiment as the condition of language. This shaped speaking carries the breath of multiple temporalities into the present.
The poem is doubly embodied – or co-embodied – because it carries the breath of language across time, across space, and across bodies, and because, Robertson writes, it ‘temporarily gathers a received and spoken reciprocity, where the I and the you create one another for the pleasure of a shapely co-recognition’. Reading the poem as the crystallisation of spoken, vernacular language, Robertson shows us that the poem is guided not only by the writer’s breath, but by a shared or reciprocal rhythm of breathing: by the syncopated and atemporal rhythm of writer and reader breathing together. Writing about Keats, Andrew Kay refers to this as ‘conspirational’ poetics, which he describes as:
a concept of forms as scores laden with physiological cues, which depend on readers to instantiate and complete them. Form, by this logic, is not an achieved textual product but a collaborative process, one in which readers grant poetic structures a material reality in their own flesh and, in so doing, resuscitate the men and women who fashioned them.
In his 1819 poem, ‘This Living Hand’, Keats crafts the verse around ‘physiological cues’ by extending his authorial hand towards his reader of the future:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.
The hand is outstretched and the heart is beating, but there is also an appeal to the breath here, not only in the poem’s urgent and breathless syntax, but in the invocation of the ‘blood’. As Kay explains, the Romantics were fascinated ‘with the actual physiological impact of the air on those who inhaled it, and the manner in which the atmosphere came to be processed by the lungs and filtered into the blood’. The poem thus locates the breath by engaging a conspirational model that requires the draining of the reader’s blood – ‘thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood’ – so that ‘in my veins red life might stream again’. Keats writes into posterity – he writes to haunt his future readers who, he knows (or earnestly hopes), will look upon this poem when his own hand lies ‘in the icy silence of the tomb’. Each living, breathing writer will, in some sense, ‘resuscitate’ him (to use Kay’s term) through the text – as, indeed, they do at the poem’s close: ‘And thou be conscience-calm’d – see here it is – / I hold it towards you’. Or, to recall Robertson, Keats’s ‘shaped speaking’ is a form of ‘co-embodied’ language, which ‘carries the breath of multiple temporalities into the present’.
The New York School poet (and contemporary of Olson) Frank O’Hara claimed not to ‘think of fame or posterity (as Keats so grandly and genuinely did)’ but to be ‘preoccupied with the world as I experience it, and at times when I would rather be dead the thought that I could never write another poem has so far stopped me’. For O’Hara, as for Keats, the poem is figured as a kind of life-source; yet, where Keats writes a dead future self into the poem (a sort of textual cryogenic suspension), O’Hara is invested in the ongoing process of writing poetry to stay alive. The poem, for O’Hara, is not a surrogate body, as it is for Keats, but the trace of a life in the moment that it is lived. O’Hara fleshes out his organic conception of the living, breathing poem in his 1959 manifesto ‘Personism’ – a ‘sly parody’, according to Marjorie Perloff, of Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’. He writes:
I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and should ‘Give it up! I was a track star of Mineola Prep.’ […] As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.
O’Hara’s analogies are not only bodily, but breathy: the heaving, puffing, panting, gasping breath of just going ‘on your nerve’; the moaning, groaning, sighing breath of going ‘to bed’ with someone. At the crux of his manifesto, O’Hara explains that, while writing a poem for a lover, ‘I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. […] It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person’. Putting the poem between two persons, O’Hara is not concerned with notating and fixing the breath of the poet, à la Olson, but in making space to breathe. O’Hara may be the inheritor of Keatsian conspiration – of a poetic that registers the dual, contrapuntal breath rhythm of both poet and reader – but his is not a demand for the reader’s breath in order to resuscitate the dead poet; it is an invitation to breathe together.
The poem ‘For Grace After a Party’ (1954) exists, according to Keston Sutherland, ‘much as O’Hara claimed to hope that all his poetry might, between persons’. The poem opens with a tender declaration of love:
You do not always know what I am feeling
Last night in the warm spring air while I was
blazing my tirade against someone who doesn’t
me, it was love for you that set me
‘For Grace’ begins not with a word, but with an inhalation: an indentation forestalls the opening line and sets the stage for the speaker’s uncertain confession. As Sutherland remarks, the indentation betrays ‘an utterance that has been prepared for, even if only in the space of a conscious brief inhalation’ – an inhalation that the reader not only hears (or sees) but also activates. To borrow Kay’s terms, we ‘instantiate’ or ‘complete’ the writer’s breath, catching our own, if only for a fraction of a second, if just within the space of an indent, before launching into the poem’s first line. As we read, we occupy the position of both speaker and addressee, breathing into and around the words we read, our breath mingling with the notated breath of the writer so that the poem becomes a performance in which breathing can, in a sense, be activated collaboratively.
Like Keats, O’Hara brings the authorial hand and breath into poetic union: the speaker turns his address directly to the reader, with the sudden injunction to ‘put out your hand’. Yet, where Keats (with his ‘grand’ ambition for ‘fame and posterity’) intrudes into the reader’s space, O’Hara opens up poetic space for the reader’s g(r)asping body to enter: ‘isn’t there / an ashtray, suddenly, there? Beside / the bed?’ The poem ends as it began, with an image of ‘the warm weather’ still ‘holding’. Yet in that final word, O’Hara does more than capture the muggy air: he offers the possibility of the clasping (‘holding’) of the hand that has reached into the poem, as well as the still-bated breath that was drawn in the opening indentation. In the confluence of hand and breath, O’Hara constructs a model of poetic conspiration that does more than register anxiety and crisis: it reminds us of the fundamental need to be and breathe together – and it makes the poem a space in which to do so.
The UK government’s 2020 health and safety campaign for COVID-19 – ‘Hands. Face. Space’ – was a potent reminder that our hands and our breath are vectors in the spread of a virus. Reading it again in the context of O’Hara’s conspirational poetic, however, the slogan resounds with the echo of Olson’s ‘the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE’. In other words, if the government’s COVID campaign reminds us that our bodies can be dangerous, it also reminds us – if only implicitly, if only as the poetic inversion of a practical guideline – of the importance of making space for the meeting of bodies, the holding of hands, the mingling of collective breath. And when that mingling becomes dangerous – when we cannot breathe together – the answer is not, as Berardi writes of the AIDS crisis, for ‘social energies [to] migrat[e] from the space of bodily conspiration (breathing together) to the space of disembodied communication’, but to find alternative forms for staging bodily engagements and transform the poem into something like an act of care. Our crises of breathing persist, and poetry alone will not solve them. But what poetry can do, as Mackey writes, is encourage ‘thought to unbind what’s bound up in the self-evident’. A poetic that understands not only the breath, but the force of shared breathing, can reveal the potential of ‘co-embodied’ language, can strive towards an unarticulated ‘something-else’, and can exist, inspirationally, ‘between two persons’.