‘I made it out of a mouthful of air’
A Mouthful of Air is a podcast of classic and contemporary poetry hosted by Mark McGuinness.
The premise of the show is that there’s always room for a poem in your day: however busy you are, you can always find a few minutes to read or listen to a poem. And that poem could change your day.
Each episode is devoted to a single poem, so the episodes are short enough to fit into a busy schedule.
You can listen to the poems on the podcast, or read them here on the website or via email. Ideally you’ll do both – because poems are written for the ear as well as the eye, you’ll get more out of a poem if you experience it both ways.
A good poem needs no introduction…
Every episode begins with the poem read aloud – either by me or by its author.
I deliberately start with the poem, because if it’s any good, it won’t need an introduction. You don’t need to be told what to think or how to feel about it, or what the poet ‘really meant’, before you hear it.
I want you to start with your own direct experience of the poem, and to find out for yourself how it makes you feel, or what thoughts it sparks in you.
Poetry isn’t as complicated as it might seem – first and foremost, the sound of the words is a sensuous experience, like listening to music. I can’t sing, read music or play an instrument, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying music (and even having some strong opinions about what I like and don’t like).
So if you’re new to poetry then one wish I have for you is that you learn to trust your own response to a poem, the first time you hear it or read it, and that you start to enjoy poetry and develop your own taste in it.
… but a little context can be helpful
If you’re curious to learn more about the poem, then the next part of each podcast episode will give you a little context for it.
When a contemporary poet appears on the show and reads one of his or her poems, I ask them about the source of their inspiration and how they turned this into the finished poem.
When I read a classic poem on the show, I will share my own thoughts about the poem, especially about how the poet has crafted it to achieve its effects.
And when I read one of my own poems, I’ll reflect on the process of writing it and the decisions I made along the way.
After that, you’ll hear the poem again. And if you’re listening carefully, the poem should sound different the second time around – because the added context will alert you to different aspects of it, that may not have been apparent at a first hearing.
Why ‘a mouthful of air’?
The show’s title is a quotation from W.B. Yeats’ poem ‘He thinks of those who have Spoken Evil of His Beloved’. Here’s the whole poem:
Half close your eyelids, loosen your hair,
And dream about the great and their pride;
They have spoken against you everywhere,
But weigh this song with the great and their pride;
I made it out of a mouthful of air,
Their children’s children shall say they have lied.
As Yeats says, a poem is made of a mouthful of air – words that are meant to be spoken aloud. The poet is an artist who fashions his or her creations out of this airy material. And poets have been doing this for thousands of years, since long before the invention of writing. So when I decided to create a poetry podcast, A Mouthful of Air seemed like the obvious name for the show.
And note that Yeats says he made the poem – contrary to the popular image of poetic inspiration, it didn’t appear in his mind fully-formed, a gift from the Muse (or an opium-fuelled reverie). He had to bring his craft, his effort and his imagination to bear on the raw materials before they were transformed into poetry.
The word poet means ‘maker’ in Greek. In the middle ages, the English word ‘maker’ was used interchangeably with ‘poet’. And in Scotland the national laureate is still called the Makar.
So A Mouthful of Air focuses on how poems are made.
Which means we will encounter a few technical terms such as ‘iambic pentameter’ and ‘Petrarchan sonnet’ along the way. But don’t be put off if you had a bad experience of poetry at school. I’m not here to offer an academic analysis of the poems.
I will approach the poems the way any poet does — as a craftsman, looking at the materials and tools to see what can be made with them. How to fit things together so that they are functional and beautiful. How to craft a mouthful of air so that it sings in your ear and resonates in your heart.
Or to change the analogy, academic analysis is like anatomy – dissecting a corpse or translating it into abstract diagrams. But the poet is only interested in physiology – how all the parts of a living, breathing creature work together.
I want you to hear the poem that moves and breathes and loves and speaks to you.
I want you to experience the poem in motion, spoken aloud with a mouthful of air.
A multimedia show for a hybrid art
Poetry is a hybrid art. Just as a frog is at home in the air or underwater, so a poem can live in a listener’s ear or a reader’s eye.
So A Mouthful of Air is a multimedia podcast, allowing you to appreciate the multi-faceted nature of the poems.
I’m a poet living in Bristol, UK. I created A Mouthful of Air to share poems I love, and to discover and share new poems by contemporary poets.
My own poems have appeared in places such as Anthropocene, Brittle Star, Magma, Oxford Poetry, The Rialto and Stand. ‘Chrysalis’ was commended in the 2021 Ambit Poetry Competition.
You can read some of my poems here.
I’m currently putting the finishing touches to my first collection, The Illusionist.
I was awarded Third Prize in the 2016 Stephen Spender Prize, for an excerpt from my translation of Chaucer’s long poem Troilus and Criseyde. You can read my translation and hear me read it at the award ceremony, here.
Listen to the show
You can listen and subscribe to A Mouthful of Air on all the main podcast platforms
Supported by Arts Council England
A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative Ltd, supported by Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.
The grant covers most of the production costs of the show – including design, original music, audio production, web hosting and fees for guest poets.
We (Mark and Mami McGuinness, founders of The 21st Century Creative) contribute the rest of the production costs, as well as our time producing the show. We are grateful to Arts Council England for supporting the show and helping to make our vision a reality.
Mark McGuinness – writer and host
Mami McGuinness – editorial consultant and project manager
Javier Weyler – music and soundscapes
Breaking Waves – audio production
Irene Hoffman – visual identity