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A Mouthful of Air
Why listen to poetry? Mark McGuinness introduces the podcast by answering this question and explaining how to get the most out of the show.
Welcome to A Mouthful of Air
Welcome to Episode One of A Mouthful of Air, a podcast of classic and contemporary poetry hosted by Mark McGuinness – that’s me, I’m a poet based in Bristol, in the UK.
So, why would you want to listen to a podcast of poetry?
If you’re a poet like me, or you already read lots of poetry, then maybe the answer will be obvious to you. What could be better than listening to some poems and hearing the poets themselves talk about what inspired them?
But if you’re new to poetry or maybe you had a bad experience at school that put you off it, then you might be wondering, ‘Why bother with poetry these days? Isn’t it a bit old fashioned?’
‘Aren’t we past all of that, now we have movies and TV and pop songs and computer games and the internet and social media to entertain us?’
‘And are there any real poets still writing today?’
Well, here’s one way to look at it.
Poetry is very old, much older than modern media, much older even, than writing. For thousands of years poets were composing and memorising poems without the aid of writing, and speaking them aloud to their listeners.
The word ‘inspiration’ comes from Latin, meaning ‘breathing in’, which points to this original root of poetry, as an art made of speech, which in turn is made by the breath.
The title of this podcast is a quote from the Irish poet WB Yeats, who spoke for many poets when he said of his poetry, ‘I made it out of a mouthful of air’.
So for countless generations poets recited their poems to people gathered around the campfire, and later on the hearth fire – and those poems were how we made sense of ourselves and our world.
Poems gave us our history, our geography, our cosmology, our science and our morality. They were full of gods and monsters and heroes and heroines doing magical and wonderful and brave and terrible things.
They showed us how the world worked. Where the universe came from, who made it, how it sustained itself, and what our role was in the great drama.
Poems showed us how to live and how to love. How to give and how to grieve.
They taught us about life and death, and even the afterlife.
And you know something?
Poets are still doing this today.
You see, in one sense poetry has always moved with the times. Poets adopted writing when it came along, and the printing press – to the point where, for the past few centuries, the printed poem has come to be seen as the main version of the poem.
So poems migrated from a mouthful of air to ink on a page, to radio and TV, to the internet and social media. Even podcasts!
But in another sense, poets are still doing what we’ve always done. Helping us to make sense of ourselves and our world. To live and love and give and grieve. And even to face death.
OK poems don’t give us a whole cosmology and history and science and a comprehensive account of the way the world works anymore. But what they can still do is to put you in touch with something that feels true, that feels real and authentic. Something that steadies you amid the bustle and excitement and anxiety of modern life.
Robert Frost put it beautifully when he said that a poem ‘begins in delight and ends in wisdom… in a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.’
So, if you’re curious about how poetry can help you make sense of your world, then come and listen.
Now we can’t all gather around the fire together, but in a way a podcast is the perfect way to recreate the original experience of listening to poetry.
People would be sat there surrounded by darkness, staring into the fire. And everyone would be lost in their imagination. As the poet recited the poem, it allowed your mind to wander and to conjure pictures in your head and feelings in your heart.
So I’d like this podcast to give you a quiet time in your day to listen to a poem. I’d like it to help you step away from the busyness of life. And to offer you a gateway to your heart and your imagination.
If you listen to the poet speaking in your ear, and open yourself up to the rhythms and sound patterns, you can experience the delight in words that Robert Frost describes.
And if you allow the words to spark images and thoughts in your mind, then maybe you’ll start to see the world of the poem, and feel its emotional truth for yourself.
Some poems can make you smile or laugh, others make you feel sad. Some can stir up anger or fear. A few can make you cry.
And once in a while, a poem can take your breath away.
After hearing a poem like that, your world will look different. You may experience what Frost calls a ‘a clarification of life… a momentary stay against confusion’ – and even a glimpse of wisdom.
How does that sound to you?
How the podcast works
So/If you’re curious about what poetry could bring into your life, here’s how the podcast will work…
Each episode of A Mouthful of Air will focus on a single poem.
And there will be two basic types of episode:
One type will be solo episodes, where it’s just me, reading classic poems and sharing my thoughts about them. And from time to time I’ll read one of my own poems and talk about the writing process that went into them.
The other type will be guest poet episodes, where I invite a contemporary poet to read one of their own poems and answer a few questions about it.
By including both classic and contemporary poetry, I want to create a kind of dialogue between the past and the present, which is how I and a lot of other poets see our writing process. Whenever I sit down to write, I’m aware of the ghosts of the past as well as the people and concerns of the moment.
And one of the great pleasure of reading poetry and listening to it is the sense that you’re eavesdropping on conversations between poets across time and space.
Each episode will follow a very simple format:
The first thing you will hear is the poem read aloud by its author, or by me, in the case of classic poems.
Next I’ll give you some context about the poem. In the case of a classic poem, I’ll share my own thoughts on how it works and what makes it special. And for contemporary poets, I will ask the poet to answer a few questions about their poem.
Finally, you’ll hear the recording of the poem again – and you may well find that it sounds different, or you notice different things, the second time round, in the light of the added context.
So why am I structuring the episodes like this?
1. The Poem
I deliberately start with the poem, because a good poem needs no 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.
So a good poem needs no introduction. But if you want to get to know the poem better, then a little context can be helpful – and that’s what you’ll get from the second part of each episode.
When I read a classic poem on the show, I will talk about what I love 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.
When a contemporary poet appears on the show and reads one of his or her or their poems, I will ask them a few questions about it.
And I’m interested in two basic questions: where did this poem come from? And how did its form evolve, in the process of writing it?
I was talking to a friend about the podcast a few months ago, and when I told him about those two questions, he said: “I’m not sure you need the second one. People aren’t really interested in poetic form.”
But we do need the second question folks, because the form is the poem. And it’s a real shame that the way people usually talk about poetic form, you’d think it was some kind of abstruse academic subject. And it’s not like that at all. But because of this perception, a lot of the conversations around poems tend to ignore the poem itself and talk about its subject matter, or the poet’s life – anything but the poem itself.
Because the form is the poem itself – the words it’s made of, the patterns they make, the sounds they make in the ear and the shapes they make on the page. The form is what makes the poem a poem and not a an essay or an article or a short story or a joke. So in this podcast, we will of course talk about the subject matter of each poem, but we will also be looking very directly at the poem itself.
As I said earlier, the title of the show is a quote from W.B. Yeats, who wrote about his poetry, ‘I made it out of a mouthful of air’.
And notice that Yeats says he made the poem – contrary to the popular image of inspiration, it didn’t appear in his mind fully-formed. He had to bring his craft, his effort and his imagination to bear on the raw materials before they were transformed into a finished poem.
The word poet comes from the ancient Greek word meaning ‘maker’. In the middle ages, the English word ’maker’ was another word for ’poet’. And in Scotland the national laureate is still called the Makar.
So in this podcast we are going to focus 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 worry: firstly I’ll explain them as we go, and if you want a longer explanation, you can go to the transcript on the website at amouthfulofair.fm and in the text you’ll find links to explanations of these terms when they appear in the transcript.
And more importantly, I’m not here to give you an academic analysis of the poems. I’m going to show you how a poet approaches a poem — as a craftsman, as a maker, 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 of poetry is like anatomy – dissecting a corpse and labelling all the different parts. But the poet is only interested in physiology – how 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.
3. The poem again
So at the end of each episode, we return to the poem itself: you will hear the poem read again. And even though it’s the same recording of the same poem, it 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.
A challenge for you
And if you really want to let poetry under your skin, I have a little challenge for you – once you’ve listened to an episode, have a go at reading the poem out loud to yourself.
Now why would you want to do that? Because reading a poem out loud is a very different experience to reading it on a page. I’ve certainly found this while recording the poems for the show, and I’d like you to experience it too.
You see when you’re reading a text silently, you’re on the outside looking in – there’s a distance between you and the poem, and there’s plenty of room for your Inner Critic to pop up and start finding fault with the poem. So you’re less likely to become emotionally engaged with it.
But when you read a poem aloud, there’s no distance at all. The mouthful of air is inside you, and you feel it resonating in your body.
And the act of reading aloud takes up so much of your attention that there isn’t so much bandwidth for the inner critic to use. So you experience the emotion of the poem much more intensely.
For the time it takes to speak the poem, you become the poet and the poem becomes a part of you.
If you’re up for this little challenge, you can find the text of all the poems on the website at amouthfulofair.fm
And don’t worry about making it a great performance – just read it to yourself with no one else listening. I think you’ll find it a surprising experience.
A multimedia podcast 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 will release a new episode every 2 weeks on a Tuesday. From time to time I may release extra episodes in between, but unless you hear me say so on the podcast, the regular schedule will be every other Tuesday.
You can get every episode as an audio recording by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcasting app.
You can get the text of the poems and a full transcript of each episode here on the website, or have them delivered to you via email.
You can also read all the poems on Instagram, or by following the show on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.
You’ll be hearing my voice a lot on this podcast, but I am certainly not doing all of this on my own, so I’d like to finish up by thanking the people who have helped me make A Mouthful of Air a reality.
The show is produced by The 21st Century Creative Ltd – that’s the company founded by me and my business partner Mami McGuinness, who also happens to be my wife.
You won’t hear Mami on the show but she’s helping me in the background, she’s a very experienced editor and her feedback is really valuable in helping me develop each episode.
We are both very grateful to other people for helping us make the show…
Firstly to the wonderful poets, for writing the poems and sharing them with us on the show.
Also to Javier Weyler, for composing the original music and soundscapes for the show.
To Javier and the rest of the team at his agency Breaking Waves, who do the audio production for each episode.
To Irene Hoffman, for designing the visual identity of the show.
To Arts Council England, who are funding most of the production costs of the show, via a National Lottery Project Grant. Mami and I are putting in our time and the rest of the costs, so between us we are making the show happen. So a very big thank you to the Arts Council for their support.
And on a personal note, I want to thank some very special teachers who have been fundamental to my development as a poet.
Firstly Sue Dove and Geoff Reilly, who taught me English at school and introduced me to the joy of close reading of poetry and encouraged me to write it.
Secondly the distinguished poet Mimi Khalvati, who has been teaching and mentoring me for almost 20 years, and who I will never be able to thank enough for challenging and inspiring me in equal measure.
Mimi will be the first guest poet on the podcast, so you will hear her voice very shortly.
And lastly the renowned voice teacher Kristin Linklater, who taught me the art of speaking poetry, up in her voice centre in a remote part of the Orkney Islands. Kristin said that the aim of her work was to connect a student’s voice, which is their imagination, with their speech, which is the sound made by the physical apparatus of the body – and she certainly did that for me.
Sadly Kristin passed away last year, but her work lives on via her students, and I’m very grateful to count myself as one of them.
So that’s it for episode 1. Now you know what the show is about and who is behind it. And in episode 2, I’m going to read you the poem by Yeats that gave the show it’s name – A Mouthful of Air – and I’ll explain why I chose the name.
Listen to the show
You can listen and subscribe to A Mouthful of Air on all the main podcast platforms
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As a songwriter, people assume I’m a poet, I understand poetry, and, well, all that.
I’m not and I don’t. There is overlap, obviously, but the poetry which isn’t structured like song lyric is outside my ken. I look forward to absorbing and being absorbed by a topic I’ve long tiptoed quietly past.
Thank you Joel, I hope you find something to enjoy in the show, and I’d be interested to hear if it offers any insights that are helpful for your songwriting.