Sunday, 11 April 2021

Breath and the Poet

I've been thinking about the poetic breath this week, how poets use punctuation and line breaks to direct the reader. I've been reading my own collection out-loud, listening for mistakes and difficult phrasing, but also how the speed of the poem is directed by these little internal controls. I've also recorded a couple of poems recently which requires you to slow them down even more for clarity. 

A poet in my writing group said he uses line breaks like punctuation, but then we noticed he used both randomly in his poem we were discussing and when he didn't pay attention to it, it lead to confusion for me. I'm not sure if he'll change it, but it was good to discuss.

Some poets are hyper-aware of how they use punctuation and line breaks to add emphasis and control how the poem is read. I enjoy this, read their work out-loud, measuring how I read to their layout. Short or long lines, big pauses and smaller intakes of breath, commas, full stops, line ends, it lends life to the poem that isn't always felt on the page.

I'm wary when reading other poets' work of placing my values on how they create pauses for breath in a poem. I read a poem this week that seemed so badly broken up for no reason that it made it painful to follow, sentences broken repeatedly across stanzas it seemed just to keep the two stanza format going. It made me wish to hear the poet read his own poem, so I could understand how he envisioned the poem. 

It's worse when editing, so if I query a comma or line break in a poem, I have to stand back and look at it without my own poet's lenses on. Usually, I discuss it with the author just to make sure it's not my voice I'm imposing on their poem. 

I often tell my writing students to use their layout and punctuation wisely, keep line endings strong so the image or sound carries to the next line, unless you're making a point by breaking it on a less poignant word or mid-sentence. But I realise that this is a personal thing, not every poet follows the same rules, just like some poet like to capitalise each line of a poem, mid-sentence or not. 

And I'm aware I'm not always great at it myself, sometimes I get caught up in the image or how the format is working that I forget to listen to how my poem sounds when it's read. Sharing my work out at my group is often most helpful just because I hear where it's going wrong with the line breaks and rhythm. Having a dramatist in the group is also beneficial for this as he is quick not notice stumbles as well.

It's something to play with, to ponder, to challenge oneself with as a poet.

For a GloPoWriMo challenge, focus on the breath in a poem. Pick a moment where breath is essential or obvious and write about it for 15 minutes. You could try and reproduce that feeling of breathlessness after a run or the faltering proposal of a shy teenage asking for a date or the adrenaline-fueled excitement of a rave. 

Then take some time reshaping the poem, so you direct the reader's breath as they move through your sentences. How can changing the line length, adding pauses through punctuation or line breaks affect the reading of your poem? Can you control how it's read or where the emphasis is placed? 

In GloPoWriMo news, I've started a few poems this week, but not every day as expected. Some days it was just scribbled notes, other times I've managed to sketch a rough draft of a poem. 

I've taken to using poetry as my 'pause. be.' time. Our school counsellor runs a lesson where she teaches the kids breathing and calming techniques. I take myself into a corner a write poetry as a way to decompress. I've never been able to meditate as my brain is always firing at full blast, so this seems a good compromise. 

How's your GloPoWriMo going?

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