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Poets Online Archive


June 2023  -  Issue #309

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 cafe, 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 cafe 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 as:

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 call for submissions was 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.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


The silence of the monastery was total.
Four of us sat facing the four cardinal directions,
our sensei at the center unmoving, silent as a stone.
I heard my breathing and tried to quiet it.
There were no windows. One small light above us.
No distractions, except for those in my mind.
Dismiss thoughts about obligations left at home
that I will need to attend to when I leave here.
Sitting with a no-gaining mind, no object of concentration,
there should be no distractions, we were told today,
Distraction comes from judgment.

I thought I heard a river and I entered it, slowly at first,
until the current took me away and I allowed it.
The water felt no different than my skin and it held me
so that we were both moving but staying still
and I was at the center of something that I could not
understand any more than the river could understand.

Pamela Milne


first, white noise
all frequencies
equally across the spectrum
doesn't quiet my thoughts
      a rainfall of pink noise
to increase deep sleep
improve memory
has me seeing blossoms falling
from a Japanese garden
      deeper brown noise,
like Brownian motion,
makes the bed rock in waves
an electric storm of thoughts
      the black noise of silence
with only the far off train whistle
at a crossing of consciousness
the gate falling into sleep

Katie Milburn


In the early morning quietude,
When the light bleeds into the dark,
Cogs whirr and rusty batteries spark,
As I strike a poetic attitude.

Ah, the gentle hum of central heating!
The warmth of those neurons connecting,
Sending blood back into my brain!
Ideas splutter, retreat, reformulate,
Release, again, into my mind.
Words, fermenting for a lifetime,
Which bottle will they find?

Conveyor belts of shapes and scenes,
Flow, unbidden, past my bedroom door.
Neuroses established long ago,
Traumas every human knows,
Trundle on past for me to explore.
Which should I assimilate,
And which can I safely ignore?
Which one, truly, tells my tale of strife?

In the early morning quietude,
A poetry machine sparks back into life.

John Botterill


The quiet that leads to inspiration
is found in a wedge of time
when a dream
holds your breathe for you
between a tick and a tock
as long as your yawn
when you pause
to collect sleep-dusty images
that often lose their way
while falling into
the sound of your next in breath
competing with your hair
scraping the coarse pillowcase
creased and dented
from the nocturnal battle
of whim and will
of sprites and memories and distance
of desperation
as silent
as slow
as the opening of an eye.

Rob Friedman


In the gloaming, I shovel snow
while my neighbors watch the Superbowl.

Drifts glimmer in TV glow
from every home except my own.

No slipping tires or laughing kids
sever the silence of five o'clock.

In the gentle quiet of falling flakes,
without a podcast in my ear

or rings and dings
from calls and texts,

I realize I have no need
for sounds and screens to feel content.

Susan Spaeth Cherry


How my bones bear the weight –
the burden as if it were song –
soundless as my soles on the trail
early on a May morning rainy
to keep other walkers away
and muffling the drops on leaves
unfurling soft green and what
noise could that make but silence
in my head writing its poem
without me and the chip chip
of a bird who sounds like
ticking of time without a clock.

Taylor Graham


The blank screen sits silent,
the cursor blinking like the
second hand of a clock, the
illuminated square bombarded
by the light of a desk lamp.

I sit here staring, listening to
the whirr of the ceiling fan,
mind empty as the screen,
breathing quietly, in-out, in-
out, in-out, waiting, waiting.

My muse has decamped, gone
to visit some younger soul in
the midst of life, one in love
with words, in love with beauty,
seeking the essence of things.

Quiet doesn’t inspire, doesn’t
open the mind to being, doesn’t
create those “spots of time” where
life reveals itself and time stops,
a moment held in a moment.

We become the clustered bloom
on the myrtle bough, the lazy
cloud adrift, the beetle edging
up the wall, the patterned shade
beneath the pine, the mottled branch.

And we know, in that moment,
the power of transcendence, the
force of atoms aware of being,
of the inward fleetingness of life,
and the words dance on the page.

Rob Miller


I prefer my quiet natural —
An Adirondack lake at dusk
Almost anyplace at dawn
An isolated beach
A starry night

Contrary to what some might think
Quiet and silence aren't the same
Add Loons to that Adirondack lake
Bird song to almost any dawn
That's fine with me

When natural quiet's not available
I simply manufacture some
My tools include: Qigong, Tai Chi
Biofeedback, imagery
Mindful meditation

My quiet is a state of mind
It calms me down, it wakes me up
Clears my head, soothes my soul
It helps me think, inspires me
Makes space for creativity

A pool of quiet is a small oasis
Ideas come to drink
Insights bathe and play in it
Associations meet
Words emerge from deep within

I need only harvest them
Stitch them into stories
Knit them into rhymes
Choose those that fit together
Save others for another time

This method may not work for some ...
It seems to work for me

Frank Kelly


Dawn and dusk are soundless.
When, like the first pink peony opening,
A glow appears at the murky line
Between sky and sea,
The sun does not sing.
And later, in silence,
The huge red orb descends,
Surrounded by quiet islands,
In the dark Sea of Japan.

Doves coo before sunrise. On the windward coast,
Mynahs call out at first light,
And the waves lap and lilt on the sand
Or crash against the lava stones
If high tide comes with twilight.

But light itself and darkness speak only to the soul—
To the listeners who lift our hearts and eyes,
Breathless, grateful
For the gift that will come.

Rose Anna Higashi


The restaurant
Noisy, crowded
Customers and servers
Darting between tables
But once seated
All fades into backdrop
You before me
Have my attention
you begin to tell me
Tidbits of picked up
Surrounding conversation
And who is wearing what
And check out those guys at the bar
And doesn’t our server look like
That actress?
And then
You’ve lost me
To myself
And the quiet
I begin to build
around me
Is in me
Becomes me
I am drunk on it
Glazed, sated
Without food
Without wine
Far away
there but not
I smile absently
Glad for the lighting
Of a tiny flickering votive
About to burn out
Here and there
I nod and offer up
Hmmms and uh huhs
And while you drone
The quiet becomes
A hum, a buzz
Within this hive of activity
I am encapsulated
In this warm
Sweet, sticky silence
Oh, honey

Terri J. Guttilla