Poetics of Breathing

Modern Literature's Syncope

By Stefanie Heine

Subjects: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Comparative Literature, Queer Studies, Poetry
Series: SUNY series, Literature . . . in Theory
Hardcover : 9781438483573, 438 pages, May 2021
Paperback : 9781438483580, 438 pages, January 2022

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations

1. Movements of Syncopnea

2. Composed on the Breath: Authentic Voice, Embodiment, Innovation (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg)

3. Generative Caesurae: Mediality, Rhythm, Affect (Robert Musil, Virginia Woolf )

4. Impossible Expiration: Reduction, Inanimate Voices, Persisting Bodies (Samuel Beckett, Sylvia Plath)

5. Breath at Point Zero: Trauma, Commemoration, Haunting (Paul Celan, Herta Müller)

6. Pneumatic Gender Dynamics, Queering Breath


A comparative study of breath and breathing as a core poetic and compositional principle in modern literature.


Breathing and its rhythms—liminal, syncopal, and usually inconspicuous—have become a core poetic compositional principle in modern literature. Examining moments when breath's punctuations, cessations, inhalations, or exhalations operate at the limits of meaningful speech, Stefanie Heine explores how literary texts reflect their own mediality, production, and reception in alluding to and incorporating pneumatic rhythms, respiratory sound, and silent pauses. Through close readings of works by a series of pairs—Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg; Robert Musil and Virginia Woolf; Samuel Beckett and Sylvia Plath; and Paul Celan and Herta Müller—Poetics of Breathing suggests that each offers a different conception of literary or poetic breath as a precondition of writing. Presenting a challenge to historical and contemporary discourses that tie breath to the transcendent and the natural, Heine traces a decoupling of breath from its traditional association with life, and asks what literature might lie beyond.

Stefanie Heine is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature in the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at the University of Copenhagen. Her previous books include Reading Breath in Literature (coauthored with Arthur Rose, Naya Tsentourou, Corinne Saunders, and Peter Garrett).


"Heine's critical approach to Nancy might be conceived of from the standpoint of Celan's famous term auseinandergeschrieben (written-apart), commented upon by Nancy in The Sense of the World (1993): so closely does Heine engage with Nancy's work that her own writing eventually splits from it, not by betraying it, but by putting it into a crisis of sorts—and thereby creating something new. A greater testament to Nancy, and to the writers Heine reads throughout this book, would be difficult to imagine." — Critical Inquiry