Words of Air: Breath, Voice and Poetry | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU

Ἀερίων ἐπέων ἂρχομαι ἀλλ’ ὀν’ατων
With words of air I begin, for this reason they are words soft in hearing)


Poetry has its roots in human breath
and what would become of us if this breath diminished?
Giorgos Seferis


Carefully uttered words, almost imperceptible sighs, loud cries and whispers, our mother tongue and every language in the world: all thoughts and feelings that have been expressed out loud in history are structures made of air.

The air exhaled from our body turns into voice and speech and becomes the spine of human communication. This transformation starts on the day of birth, through cries and sighs initially, that eventually turn into speech. Our voice always seeks to carry a message –basic, in the case of cries and elaborate when it comes to words.

So what is voice?

According to Aristotle “Voice is a kind of sound characteristic of what has soul in it; nothing that is without soul utters voice”. So, phone (voice) is the sounds produced both by animals and man. However, there’s a differentiation between phone semantike (voice with meaning) and animal vociferations or unintentional bodily sounds, like cough, for example. In other words, voice is a controlled, intentional sound coming through the mouth.

As for the enigma of the formulation of voice in the body, two different views were put forth: one that paralleled the body to a string instrument, like an Apollonian lyre, and another that compared it to a wind instrument, that makes a noise as the air is directed out of it. In the end, it became evident that both strings and wind play a role in the formation of voice, since it is based on the flow of air through the vocal cords and its modulation in the larynx and the mouth.[1]

In addition to the widespread approach of the human body as a musical instrument –and voice as its music- there is the notion that voice somehow expresses the materiality of the body. For example Roland Barthes focuses on the more material aspects of the singing voice:

The singing voice is not the breath but indeed the materiality of the body emerging from the throat, a site where the phonic metal hardens and takes shape.[2]

Italo Calvino expands this vision by emphasizing on the role of the corporeal and non-corporeal elements in the formulation of voice:

A voice means this: there is a living person, throat, chest, feelings, who sends into the air this voice, different from all other voices. A voice involves the throat, saliva, infancy, the patina of experienced life, the mind’s intentions, the pleasure of giving personal form to sound waves.[3]

So, for Italo Calvino the voice comes from the inside of the body as a mixture of exhaled breath, body, memories and thoughts that expresses the individuality of the person that releases it.

A voice starts its journey in the inner body as breath exhaled from the lungs, which is moderated in the larynx –in order to define musical tone and intensity- and subsequently halted in the cavity of the mouth, squeezed and stopped at intervals. It ends up as speech that expresses thoughts, with a volume and a tone that reveals the speaker’s intention and emotion, and an accent and musicality that originates in the linguistic culture of the person speaking.

The voice is a joint between body and speech,[4] as Barthes stresses: “the voice, which is the bodily aspect of speaking, is situated in the articulation of the body and of discourse”.[5]

It is due to this interconnection between breath, voice and speech that the Ancient Greek tradition, before Plato, considered that thought was formulated in the thymos, which was located in the human chest. Although it is difficult to find a modern translation for the word thymos, based on its origin from the verb thyo (to blow, to breathe) and its use in the literary tradition, we could accept Onians’ interpretation that “the θυμός itself is the breath, which may always be felt as vaporous and sometimes is visible”.[6] Thymos was located in phrenes, the centre of the emotional world located in the chest, the heart and the lungs.

Thymos was also used as a synonym for “soul” –which stresses the assertion that for ancient Greeks breath, soul and spirit were interconnected; the etymology of words such as psyche (soul) and pneuma (spirit) –psycho and pneo respectively, both translated as “to blow”- links those concepts to breath.

Eventually thought became disassociated from breathing and voice; the Platonic tradition located the centre of thought in the head, a notion that has prevailed in Western tradition. The archaic notion that “to think is to speak and to speak is to breathe”,[7] that thinking derives from speech has been abandoned for the scientifically proven view that speaking comes as a result of thinking.

However, the archaic idea that thought originated from the lungs, survives in the literature of the era, that has poetically seminated Western culture; therefore it is interesting to mention briefly how it is manifested in epic and lyric poetry, before we see the impact of metric speech on breath and bodily rhythm.

In the Homeric poems, we find Odysseus beating his chest before speaking to the Phaeacians, as if he were trying to evoke memory and thought from his phrenes. Considering the fact that Homer’s poems date back to a period when written speech was not so common and ideas were mainly formulated by oral speech and passed on via oral tradition, we can understand why for the ancient Greeks of the archaic period thinking was speaking and speaking came from the lungs.

Likewise, in the archaic tradition the centre of perception was located in the lungs: in epic poetry the gods often give ideas and solutions to the heroes by “breathing” ideas into their phrenes;[8] following the opposite path, the ideas can also exit our body through exhalation: “mind, thoughts, knowledge are breath which can also be breathed out”.[9]

In the ancient Greek tradition here’s a strong connection between “word” and “air”, highlighted in the commonly used phrase epea pteroenta (winged words), which comes up repeatedly in Homeric poetry –and is still being used in modern Greek.[10] Words have wings, because they fly up in the air. This idea is present in the lyric poetry of Sappho, whose words are made of air:

With words of air I begin, for this reason they are words soft in hearing.[11]

Sappho’s words are made of air, made of breath because they come through the lungs and the vocal chords, destined to be recited and not to be read.

This is true for poetry throughout the ages; poetry recitation is supposed to result in a musicality emerging from the metric of speech and the succession of vowels and consonants that constitute the words. Poets take into consideration the musicality of language and try to communicate their words in a metric and musical speech.

On the other hand, poetry recitation, just like everyday speech, not only originates in breath –which is the first substance of voice, as we have noted- but can also alter it. The impact of speaking –through the volume of voice and the rhythm of speech- on breath and the body is a fact that can be easily verified at times when an intense discourse leaves us out of breath. More analytically, medical research has provided us with detailed accounts on how different types of speech have different effects on the body.

According to the research “Oscillations of heart rate and respiration synchronize during poetry recitation”, there’s a connection between poetry recitation and cardiorespiratory synchronization.[12]

The research is based on comparative measurements of the synchronization between low frequency breathing patterns and respiratory sinus arrhythmia[13] – the variability of heart rate during respiration- in three different cases: the recitation of hexameter verse, controlled breathing and spontaneous breathing. In order to see if there’s a difference in how breath and heart rate are synchronized in these cases, the heart rate variability was studied in healthy subjects during and after poetry recitation –hexameter and alliterative verse. Also the heart rate during normal conversation was measured.

According to the results of the research, the recitation of hexameter modulated heart rate, during the recitation and for a few minutes after that. During recitation of hexameter there was a prominent cardiorespiratory synchronization, in other words heart rate and respiration synchronized. However, the recitation of other kind of poetry or normal conversation didn’t have the same results on heart rate and breathing.

It appears that the hexameter verse imposes on the person that recites it a breathing rhythm of six breaths per minute, which is also happening during certain religious practices, such as the recitation of the rosary or the “OHM” mantra. Such recitations have substantial influence not only on heart rate, but on the oscillations of the cerebral blood flow and the fluctuations of blood pressure as well.

Therefore, it appears that the effects of poetry recitation and meditation on human thought also have a strong physiological basis.

It seems that breath is linked to voice and speech in multiple ways: breath is the “first matter” of voice, the air that passes through the vocal cords, turns to voice and with the movements of the mouth it can become uttered words. On the other hand, speech itself can influence our breathing rhythm: according to medicine, reciting different types of texts can affect breathing and through breathing it can also alter heart rate and the blood flow in the body and the brain.



[1] Connor, Steven (2007), “Whisper Music”, Symposium Take a Deep Breath. Tate Modern, London. 16 November. Lecture. Accessed: August 2011. www.stevenconnor.com/whispermusic

[2] Barthes, Roland (1985). “Listening.” In The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, NewYork: Hill andWang. p.255.

[3] Calvino, Italo (1988), “A King Listens” In Under the Jaguar Sun, New York: Harcourt Brace, pp.33-64.

[4] Cavarero, Adriana (2005), For More Than One Voice, Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression, Stanford: Stanford University Press, p.15.

[5] Barthes, Roland (1985), ibid.

[6] Onians, Richard Broxton [1951] (2011), The Origins of European Thought: About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, The World, Time and Fate, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.44.

[7] Cavarero 2005, ibid., p. 66.

[8] The idea of strength and courage breathed into a hero by a god recurs in Homer. See for example Homer, Iliad, X, 482: “Ὣς φάτο, τῷ δ’ ἔμπνευσε μένος γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη” (So spake he, and into the other’s heart flashing-eyed Athene breathed might). Also Homer, Odyssey, XXIV, 520: “ὣς φάτο, καί ῥ’ ἔμπνευσε μένος μέγα Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη” (So spoke Pallas Athena, and breathed into him great might.)

[9] Onians 2011, ibid., p.56.

[10] For more details on the concept of “winged words” see Létoublon, Françoise (1999), “Epea Pteroenta (“Winged Words)”, Oral Tradition, pp. 321-335. Acessed: August 2011. journal.oraltradition.org/files/articles/14ii/4_letoublon.pdf

[11] See, Odysseus Elytis (1984), Sappho, Athens: Ikaros, p.18.

[12] Cysarz, Dirk (2004), Von Bonin Dietrich, Lackner Helmut, Heusser Peter, Moser Maximilian, Bettermann Henrik, “Oscillations of heart rate and respiration synchronize during poetry recitation”, American Journal of Physiology, AJP – Heart, August, vol. 287 no. 2 H579-H587. Accessed: August 2011. ajpheart.physiology.org/content/287/2/H579.full

[13] Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) is a naturally occurring variation in heart rate that occurs during a breathing cycle. Heart rate increases during inhalation and decreases during exhalation. For more information, see Yasuma F. (2004), Hayano J., “Respiratory sinus arrhythmia: why does the heartbeat synchronize with respiratory rhythm?”, Chest 125, p.683–690.