February 2011 Feature Article

The poet and his Turkish wife/muse
Gamze Randolph
(UWL M.B.A. graduate, 2010)
We are pleased to feature a Fall 2010 Wisconsin TESOL Newsletter article by poet Patrick T. Randolph, who taught at UW-La Crosse from 2006 to 2010. International students at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale are now fortunate to have Patrick as their teacher.

We hope you will take a quiet moment to let Patrick inspire you with his poetry.  You will find two of his books at Murphy Library: Father’s Philosophy and Empty Shoes: Poems on the Hungry and the Homeless
.   The ESL Literary Review includes additional poems.

Breathing Breath Poems into the ESL/EFL Classroom                    
by Patrick T. Randolph              

Looking for a great creative activity for writing class? Looking to expand the minds of your students? Looking for a way to help them with diction? Then step right up and meet the “breath poem”! Breath poems help students with critical and creative thinking, writing and reading, and pronunciation and diction.

Breath Poems

The breath poem is an invention of mine that students have enjoyed for a number of reasons: it’s short, powerful, and—despite its length—has voice and tells a story. A breath poem has a mere ten syllables. The poem’s features include a title and three lines of verse. The first and second lines have three syllables each, and the fourth and last line has four syllables.

The breath poem is intended to be read out loud. After reading the title, you inhale the first line while you read, and exhale the second. The last line has various “breathing patterns”: you can either inhale the first two syllables or exhale the last two, or you can inhale the first three and exhale the last syllable.
This consequently becomes an exercise in both spiritual and physiological development. You can work on diction and pronunciation as well as writing and reading. Here is an example of a breath poem:

Autumn Colors
Falling leaves
                          child’s grin—just born!


Breath poems can be taught at all levels from elementary school to university. I have found that all levels of students blossom in terms of creativity. There is no restriction with content, so the poems can be about any topic. They merely need to follow the syllable count. As a consequence, any level of students should feel comfortable writing breath poems.

Writing Breath Poems

Breath poems can be a bit intimidating at first with respect to the syllable count, as they are even stricter than the Japanese haiku, which has a 5-7-5 syllable count. I recommend that the instructor first relax the students by brainstorming possible topics for a poem. Next, it is best to simply write the poems without initially paying attention to the syllables.
Once the poems have been written, you can then start to whittle away the unnecessary words until you have a 3-3-4 syllable poem. Of course, if the students do not know what a syllable is, or if they need practice identifying and counting these, then it is best to work on that first.

Let’s take a look at how we might go about this “whittling down process” by using the above example poem, “Autumn Colors”. Let’s say we start with a poem that looks like this:

Autumn Colors
Autumn’s falling leaves
                            are discovering
                                                 A child’s big grin that was just born!

We can immediately extract “autumn’s” from the first line because the basic form of the word is used in the title. It should be noted here that the title is important in breath poems because it “frames” the content of the poem and gives the reader a sense of reference. We can easily change the present progressive to the simple present in the second line; that is, change “are discovering” to “discover”. The last line is a bit more challenging, but we can cut the indefinite article “a” and we can cut and replace “big” because the word “grin” already implies a pronounced smile. “That” and “is” can be cut and replaced with a dash.

This last edit not only makes the poem more powerful, but it also shows the quick flash of reality that actually happens when a child looks at falling leaves; that is, a momentary observance coupled with a beautiful consequence. Additionally, breath poems help students become “word-smiths” and “see” language as both art and function. Students develop a sense of the language, and they see what is best in terms of word choice and verb tense choice.

Uses of Breath Poems

Breath poems can be used as warm-ups or you can devote a whole class session to them. It depends on the level of the students. Of course, like anything new, they require more time in the beginning, but once the instructor and the students develop a sense of how to write breath poems, they become easier.
Instructors can also have students illustrate their poems with pictures. They can show their pictures while reading the poem. Moreover, because breath poems also lend themselves to stories, a series of four or five breath poems about one topic can be illustrated with pictures. Thus, students can read these connected poems as stories, complete with illustrations.

Reading the breath poems to an audience gives the students a special experience, whether they are the individual breath poems or the story-based poems. Once students read their work to a partner or to a class, they take on unique ownerships of the work and develop a better sense of self-esteem and confidence. This can have very positive results for students. They begin to see the “living”, “dynamic” quality of language as opposed to seeing it merely as a subject in school. Since these poems come from within the students’ own psyches, they add to the students’ sense of self-worth.

Benefits of Breath Poems

We can see that breath poems help students become word-smiths, they increase the students’ understanding of syllables, they help students discover how to work with the language, and they develop a higher sense of self-esteem and confidence in the language.

If used frequently, breath poems can help students gain a real sense of control over the language. Lastly, breath poems help the students make a connection between breathing and speaking, reading and writing. It is as easy as 3-3-4!

Patrick T. Randolph teaches expository and creative writing at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He lives with his wife, Gamze, in Murphysboro, IL, in the hilly green southern regions of the Midwest.