Breath, Body, and the Living Poem
“…The audience is usually made up of young people, which means that this is not a custom that is dying out— as prophets of the end of poetry maintain—but a living tradition, one that is being taken up and renewed” Octavio Paz
The living tradition that Octavio Paz wrote about is not the act of reading the poem a loud from a page or reciting what you have memorized, but rather the unity of poet and poem, an utterance from the soul of the author. A poetic message birthed in necessity and resistance. A spiritual moment of spontaneity that connects the artist with the audience, in which the higher-self of the artist is alive far from the limitations of mortality that flaw the consciousness of the lower-self.
Nowhere has the art of the oral poem been more cultivated over the last twenty-five years than the poetry slam. Two very important factors have really fostered this development. First, the fact that poets are under a time limit of three minutes creates a sense of urgency pushing the poet to evoke not only a clarity of their work, but also a desired response of that work from the audience. Second, the heightened sensory elements of competition give poets a chance to live in the space given. A packed room containing a boisterous audience, especially when placed in a national competition, generates an aura of energy that permeates every surface of the venue.
The poet must harness the energy swirling through the crowd. They must focus the energy that the onlookers not only give, but also receive from the poet and their work. The ability to feel the energy of the space and to have awareness of the give and take of that energy is of paramount importance to the poet. A live body exists within the internal happenings, but also the external circumstances.
The breath (living moment) of the poem must have a body balanced in between, an open valve, a conduit that carries the conviction of the art. When done correctly the poem is an effortless communication, from the beginning of the motion it is fluid and natural. This living moment of spontaneous creation is what I call the breath of the poem. This developing delivery from the whole of oneself is the voice of our modern times.
In all its incarnations—high school slams, collegiate slams, or in the adult venues—you will find on the slam’s local, regional, and national stages, poets have pushed the boundaries of communication and breath. The slam community is discovering ways of delivering the poem from the core of the body beyond the inanimate limitations of the page; and by so doing constructing works that culminate in a unity at its highest expressions between the audience, the poet, and the poem.
A fluid movement of energy, in which, the eternal act of creation becomes a living entity of the mortal instant. The present becomes the fragile thread binding the poem’s breath. The artist, disconnected from the lower self, appears to be a conduit more than a source. Even in the silence of the poem, a harmony of energies exists filling the air around the poet.
To experience, a poet who reads the meter of their poem or the cadence of the syllables as the focal point of delivery is often flat and without emotion. In that thinking, the form is more important than the breath of the poem. As if, the boundaries of their creativity are the two-dimensional confines of white space. These poets deny the natural home of the poem, the body. Even worse if their own work is not an ingested expression; this often will leave the audience feeling like this is the first time the poet has ever seen the poem. Why would an artist expend so much care and energy to create a work, if they do not intend to put care and energy to the re-creation of that work?
A poet should be natural and fluid on the stage. That transcendent moment is where the higher self of the artist is the vehicle for the art that is being received by those it touches. There are two ways of receiving or acknowledging something as truth—with your head and with your heart. Art has the possibility to stir one or none of these receptors. At its highest level, art can cause one to awaken the other creating enlightenment for whoever is receiving the art. The live performance of the poem not only offers this transcendent moment for the audience, but also for the poet. This only occurs if the breath of the poem is fluid, natural, and located firmly within the poet’s body.
I can best describe what slam poets search for in the coming together of the craft of writing and craft of performance to where the body and the poem are one— seemingly outside the constraints of time, living in a present moment, an unrepeatable movement of time where the magical becomes possible. A genuine soulful utterance brought to life from the truest part of the artist.
In other words, the poem is alive. To create a living thing, not just the mere audible sounds of words spoken in real time, one must be one grounded in the body. All art is spiritual in nature, to think of your writing in lesser terms, I feel, speaks to the lower self. While the human artist is very flawed, the energy of creation that uses the artist is flawless. When an artist can tap into this energy and connect with the higher self, the poem ceases to be limited.
Breath, Body, and the Living Poem