May 27, 2023

Attention Is the Beginning of Devotion

Mary Oliver has published many books of poetry and is best known as a poet, but included in her 25 books is also prose and one of those books is Upstream. It is a collection of essays about her relationship to the natural world, and how it influences her writing and reading.

In the title essay of that book, she describes getting lost in the woods as a child. You would expect her to have been fearful, but she says she had “the sense of going toward the source.”

“One tree is like another, but not too much.
One tulip is like the next tulip, but not altogether.” 

The essay asks all of us to teach and show children how to notice the world. She suggests that we stand them in a creek and walk upstream, noticing the sticks, rocks, leaves, flowers, and insects. All of those things seem silent, but they're not. You need to listen. Attention is the beginning of devotion. 

In a 2015 interview on the radio program On Being, Oliver talked about all this and especially how walking and writing in the woods saved her life.

One of her best-known poems is "Wild Geese." I can imagine her walking in the woods and hearing, then seeing, those geese above her, heading somewhere unknown.


Visit our website at

May 3, 2023

Prompt: Quiet Machine

I had listened to the On Being podcast interview with Ada Limón in which she read her poem "The Quiet Machine." (listen to her read the poem and see it as text, or listen to the entire podcast)  I made a note to consider the poem as a prompt here, but I had some trouble with formulating what I wanted to say.

I have come to think of the machine that creates quiet as ourselves. It is also the way you write. It is a process. It is a writing prompt.

Some writers prefer silence but it's not really required. I can write in a noisy café, or listening to the sound of the wheels as I ride a train or with the sounds of children on the playground as I sit on a bench in the park. You might even be inspired or find the sounds entering your writing - a bit of café conversation, the meter of the train wheels on the track, the music of those children at play.

Ada Limón's poem is a prose poem. I had a hard time accepting prose poems when I first saw them. I remember first hearing a poet read her poems and liking them, so I picked up her book. Prose poems. Where were the line breaks, pauses and stanzas that I heard in her reading?

Maybe Ada Limón's poem works better for you in this format:

I’m learning so many different ways to be quiet.
There’s how I stand in the lawn, that’s one way.
There’s also how I stand in the field across from the street,
that’s another way because I’m farther from people
and therefore more likely to be alone.
There’s how I don’t answer the phone...

I have come to semi-accept prose poems because I now think of them as a form of enjambment; that running-over of a sentence or phrase from one line to the next. It keeps the poem flowing, like a river which we only perceive in sections. No terminal punctuation.

It is the opposite of end-stopped; lines ending at a grammatical boundary - dash, closing parenthesis, colon, semicolon, period, or if it is a complete phrase. An example of that is Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man: Epistle I”:

Then say not man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;
Say rather, man’s as perfect as he ought:
His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,
His time a moment, and a point his space.
If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
What matter, soon or late, or here or there?

This latest call for submissions is not for prose poems but to take Limón's idea of creating a quiet that leads to inspiration. For me, her "silence that comes back a million times bigger than me, sneaks into my bones and wails and wails and wails until I can’t be quiet anymore" is the sound of the poem coming from the quiet machine, from inside of us.


Follow this blog for all things poetry.
To see our past prompts and more than 300 issues,
visit our website at