Ginsberg’s Breath Units

Allen_Ginsberg_1978 by Ludwig Urning

Allen Ginsberg, 1978

Photo by Ludwig Urning

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection

to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…

So run the opening lines of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl, considered by many to be one greatest works of American literature.   One aspect of the poem that has always fascinated me is that Ginsberg wrote it in what are often called “breath units”, i.e. each line comprises the amount of words that should be spoken with one breath.   I have experimented with breath units or something similar in both prose and poetry.   One example is my poem “Faust“, which was published by the Hollins Critic in 1992.

I have found that when used in prose, breath units can be effective in breaking up rhythm in order to emphasize a point.   For example,  imagine a sentence as equivalent to a breath unit.  Write a very long sentence and try saying it in one breath.  It is as if you are trying to say something in a hurry.  Use that long sentence to describe fast-moving but extended action, such as a martial arts masters exchanging blows in a match.  To me, it seems as if I am in the fight while trying to describe it.  Now use three to four of these sentences to describe the entire match.  Then use a very short, indicative sentence to describe the final blow dropping the defeated master to the mat.

Here is an example of the use of my use of breath units in my story “A Tale of Hell” (published by in 2006).  Note that here I start with two short sentences, then follow them with three long sentences, and then conclude with one short one for emphasis.

He wanted to make love. He did not want just sex. He was not interested in his own orgasm as much as he felt an overpowering desire for the smooth texture of Theresa’s skin; the velvety brush of her nipples across his face; the sight of the light playing upon the delicate, minute hair covering the back of her neck; the tickle of her breath as it flowed around the contours of his ear. Above all else, he wanted to hear her voice, that voice that sometimes changed into a shrill nag when he wasn’t paying attention to what she said, or when he forgot to pick up something at the store, or when he neglected to call and tell her he would be late for supper.  Now it dawned on him: over the years she had put up with a lot more crap than she should have. He wanted to apologize.

I have no doubt there are other technical names for this technique when used in prose, but I do not know them.   It is a technique  use occasionally.   To my mind, prose breath units should be used sparingly or they lose their impact.   I think they have a great potential in horror literature if used properly, because they can lead a reader very fast to a point that is suddenly emphasized by an unexpectedly abrupt hall–sort of like sprinting around a corner only to run face first into a brick wall.

So, I guess the question for tonight is:  are you familiar with this technique and do you know it by another name?

By the way, I had never thought of it before, but isn’t that first line of “Howl” very much in the horror vein?  I am wondering if “Howl” couldn’t be used as an example of horror in many ways, though it was almost certainly never intended to be viewed as a work of horror.