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.


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