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Poetry and Breath: Resuscitating Literature, Reimagining the World

Last week, I delivered my inaugural professorial lecture in Dunedin. Here, in addition to sharing the recording, I also reproduce the text of the opening part of the lecture.

Tihei mauri ora. The sneeze of life. The phrase is used to claim the right to speak, as I do this evening.

The phrase looks back to Hineahuone, who, according to many accounts of Māori whakapapa, was the first woman. Tāne fashioned her from the blood red clay of Papatūānuku and then breathed life into her.

This evening I want to talk about breath.

Hā ki roto, hā ki waho. Breathe in, breathe out. It’s the simplest thing, the in- and outflow of breath that keeps us alive, so automatic that, most of the time, we hardly notice it.

But it seems harder now not to notice that inflow and outflow of breath. Covid-19, the disease that has changed all our lives, attacks the lungs, making it hard and, in severe cases, impossible for a person to breathe.

Covid not only affects a person’s ability to breathe but also spreads through our breath, so that this most basic part of human and animal existence has become a source of anxiety and fear—so much so that it seems remarkable to be standing in front of you now, breathing the same air that you are breathing.

But Covid is not the only reason that breath has become impossible to ignore. “I can’t breathe,” said George Floyd as he was suffocated to death by police in Minneapolis last year. “I can’t breathe,” said Eric Garner suffocated to death by police in New York City six years earlier. “I can’t breathe” say millions, as they protest against the racism that continues to plague our world.

These words have been taken up not only to protest against the literal suffocation and murder of black people at the hands of the police in the United States; they also voice a wider protest against racism in all its forms. “I can’t breathe” articulates the impossibility of thriving in a society shaped by prejudice.

“I can’t breathe” also speaks to climate change. Already in 2015, poet Ross Gay made this link. He described how Eric Garner “worked for some time for the Parks and Rec. / Horticultural Department” and so “in all likehood, / . . . put gently into the earth / some plants,” whose exhalations of oxygen make “it easier for us to breathe.” As Ben Okri put it more recently and bluntly, “‘I can’t breathe’ will become the condition of the world,” if we go on ignoring the “warnings of climate catastrophe.”

Breath today marks a series of catastrophes. We have the capacity to address these catastrophes but repeatedly fail. In each case it is partly words that fail us. They spread racism, xenophobia, nationalism, misinformation; they perpetuate inequality and prejudice, preventing many, sometimes literally, from breathing.

Poets have little power to address these global issues directly, but they are concerned with the power of words and their origin in breath, be it the breath of life that animated Hineahuone, or that first breath that each of us took when we came into this world.

I can also link my entrance into the world of scholarship to breath. I wrote my honours dissertation on the poet Osip Mandelstam’s first book. The first poem in that first book is entitled “Breathing,” or “Dykhanie” in Russian:


Дано мне тело — что мне делать с ним,
Таким единым и таким моим?

За радость тихую дышать и жить
Кого, скажите, мне благодарить?

Я и садовник, я же и цветок,
В темнице мира я не одинок.

На стёкла вечности уже легло
Моё дыхание, моё тепло.

Запечатлеется на нём узор,
Неузнаваемый с недавних пор.

Пускай мгновения стекает муть —
Узора милого не зачеркнуть.


I’ve been given a body—what shall I do with it,
So whole and so mine?

For the quiet joy of breathing and living,
Whom, tell me, should I thank?

I am both gardener and flower;
In the prison of the world, I am not alone.

On the glass of eternity has settled
My breathing, my warmth.

A design shall be imprinted on them,
Recently unrecognizable.

Let the dregs of the moment drip down—
The sweet design cannot be crossed out

The poem poses a problem of origins and position. I have a body, life, breath, now what shall I do with them? What shall I say? These are questions that the young Mandelstam posed at the beginning of his career, that I continue to ask myself, and that I want to return to in several ways over the course of this lecture.

They are not idle questions. As teachers, writers, researchers we have a responsibility not to waste our breath or our words. And even more than that, we have a responsibility to allow others to breathe and speak. Our students, our disciplines, our universities, our societies need to provide the cultural oxygen that allows everyone to breath and speak easily, regardless of differences. We have a very long way to go to achieve this ideal in a society, country, and world all still poisoned by racial and gender discrimination, xenophobia, homophobia and other forms of prejudice. Although it is heartening that this year and last year over half of those promoted to professor at Otago are women, as a Pākehā man, I am still part of a privileged and disproportionally large majority within the professoriate. Meanwhile, the growing precariat—that is, those working on temporary contracts for low wages—at this and other universities is disproportionately female and non-white. So, the question again is: given this body, given this position, given this opportunity to breathe and to speak, what should I do with it, what should I say?

In Mandelstam’s poem, the speaker’s breath leaves patterns on the cold window pane just as the poet leaves patterns of words on the page. This pattern appears in a moment—in an outflow of breath, in a few strokes of pen on paper. Breath here becomes a figure for the moment of poetic composition, of voice, that ushers in something new—something never before known. The moment is fleeting and yet it leaves behind a pattern that will extend beyond the instance of exhalation and indeed beyond the living, breathing life of the poet, whose fate was to die at the hands of the Stalinist regime that he bravely opposed with the fragile eternity of the poetic word.

I have no such grandiose hopes for this lecture, but I do want to use it to trace a pattern: to explore how poets have turned to breath to verbalize the battle for speech and for cultural oxygen in an at times suffocating literary and cultural status quo. From these poetic struggles for breath, I want also to draw lessons for how we might change the way we teach so as to allow everyone to breathe easily, to ensure everyone has the same chance of occupying the privileged position of standing here speaking to you.

I want to begin by examining how Mandelstam’s use of breath in this poem forms part of a tradition. Poets writing in the European tradition have long associated the lyric with the fleetingness of the singular breath and with the written words that outlive it. Shakespeare, for instance, writes:

O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out

Against the wreckful siege of battering days,

He goes on to ask who might hold this “wreckful” passage of time back, only to answer:

O, none, unless this miracle have might,

That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

The fleeting breath of summer, and by implication of the poet and his beloved, will not last, but the words live on. Similarly, in sonnet 18:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

It’s this same tradition of thinking of the lyric as both singular and all-encompassing and everlasting that Mandelstam draws on.

Such poetic uses of breath exemplify two key aspects of the Western lyric tradition. On the one hand, the lyric has come to stand for the personal, individual perspective; and on the other hand, for a sleight of hand whereby that perspective becomes generalized as a universal truth. Breath provides a bridge for this lyrical sleight of hand: each person’s breath is uniquely theirs and yet breathing is something common to humanity as a whole.

For its critics, two key dangers lurk in this way of thinking about lyric poetry and the world at large. On the one hand, it encourages individualism, an emphasis on oneself at the expense of others. Think of Mandelstam’s emphasis on a breath that is “so my own.” Such individualism is of course the basis of neoliberal capitalism but it is also a disaster in the face of problems that require collective action, such as a global pandemic, a climate emergency, or systemic racism and inequality. In these cases, narrow self-interest is precisely what inhibits effective collective action.

The lyric also has another side seemingly at odds with this individualism but, for its critics, equally problematic. It extrapolates a common humanity and timeless universal claims from its highly personal example. Mandelstam’s singular breath is also shared (“I am not alone”) and becomes the guarantee, via his penning of the lyric, of something eternal (“on the glass of eternity”; or for Shakespeare, “so long as men can breathe”).

We might think that this aspect of the Western lyric and its deployment of breath are precisely what we need in our current crises. Surely, we need an appeal to our common humanity and what could be more common than breath? After all, Mandelstam arguably appealed to our common human breath to counter any prejudice against him because of his Jewish identity. Why shouldn’t we use the same tactic to overcome prejudice today?

The danger lies in the way the shift from an individual viewpoint to a global claim obscures difference. So-called level economic playing fields, race-blind policies, and common individual freedoms ignore the massive accumulations of wealth in a few hands that make the playing field more like Mt Everest; the insidious effects of prejudice; and the constraints on the life and liberty of the vulnerable when others choose to exercise their freedoms by spreading a dangerous virus. Seen in this light, neoliberalism and the Western lyric tradition are as dangerous for their false universalism as for their individualism.

But need poets appeal to breath only in this way? Might they also offer an alternative to this tradition and so to the breathlessness of our present moment? Might they articulate other ways of being and breathing in the world?


Published by Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019), A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012), and of numerous essays, which have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.

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