Poetry Mixtape 34: The Of Machine

In every poetry workshop I have ever attended, I have been warned to stay away from the “of machine” – you know, the one that uses a prepositional phrase starting with “of” as a  type of metaphor – the cage of the ribs, the fist of the heart. Or sometimes it has been identified as a simple overuse problem regarding prepositional phrases beginning with of as a crutch for description.

And I have, in most cases, taken that advice to heart. Sometimes, the sound of a line nudges me to leave one of these phrases in place, but sometimes they are the easy way out. So, of course, in my reading today (my re-reading, actually) of my beloved complete poems of Elizabeth Bishop, I was reminded of how most writing advice can be ignored to great result.

Objects and Apparitions

(for Joseph Cornell)

Hexahedrons of wood and glass,

scarcely bigger than a shoebox,

with room in them for night and all its lights.


Monuments to every moment,

refuse of every moment, used:

cages for infinity.


Marbles, buttons, thimbles, dice,

pins, stamps, and glass beads:

tales of the time.


Memory weaves, unweaves the echoes:

in the four corners of the box

shadowless ladies play at hide-and-seek.


Fire buried in the mirror,

water sleeping in the agate:

solos of Jenny Colonne and Jenny Lind.


“One has to commit a painting,” said Degas,

“the way one commits a crime.” But you constructed

boxes where things hurry away from their names.


Slot machine of visions,

condensation flask for conversations,

hotel of crickets and constellations.


Minimal, incoherent fragments:

the opposite of History, creator of ruins,

out of your ruins you have made creations.


Theatre of the spirits:

objects putting the laws

of identity through hoops.


“Grand Hotel de la Couronne”:in a vial,

the three of clubs and, very surprised,

Thumbelina in gardens of reflection.


A comb is a harp strummed by the glance

of a little girl

born dumb.


The reflector of the inner eye

scatters the spectacle:

God all alone above an extinct world.


The apparitions are manifest,

their bodies weigh less than light,

lasting as long as this phrase lasts.


Joseph Cornell: inside your boxes

my words became visible for a moment.


All of the maroon phrases are used for description or additional information. All of the teal phrases are classic examples of the “machine” we are admonished to avoid. Who would dare edit these phrases from Bishop’s poem? I know I wouldn’t.

If you want to write:

1. Write a poem where you use NO prepositional phrases or ALL prepositional phrases.

2. Try to use the “of machine” to your advantage. Write a poem using all of these cliched phrases and (as Tim Gunn would say) “Make it work!”

* cage of the ribs

*fist of the heart

*maze of the mind

*fire of the flesh


7 thoughts on “Poetry Mixtape 34: The Of Machine

  1. So, I was just taking a break from writing by reading your blog. Of course, the first thing I did after reading, was go back to my poem and check for overuse!! LOL. I’m good, but I did change a couple of phrases. It’s always good (yet difficult) to look at our poems with this kind of eye, and even more difficult (yet good) to buck the “rules” without sounding exactly like what the rules warn. It’s a fine balance, I think, and you’ve illustrated that point beautifully with this EB poem.

    I love the prompts. Not only good ideas for interesting poems, but exercises for “writing self-awareness” I think.

    Great post. Thanks Donna!

  2. I promote one rule in writing “honesty to self”. All else is someone dictating what works for them as if it were law. Thanks for not promoting a “paint by numbers” approach to writing.

  3. Pingback: Friday Freeforall « Margo Roby: Wordgathering

    • It seems to me that the prepositional phrases in Bishop’s poem are of a different order than those quoted at the outset. The latter can easily be translated into possessives or even kennings – ribcage, hardfist, mindmaze, fleshfire.

      Try it with these lines and the results are hardly and improvement IMO:

      Slot machine of visions,
      condensation flask for conversations,
      hotel of crickets and constellations.
      Minimal, incoherent fragments:
      the opposite of History, creator of ruins,
      out of your ruins you have made creations.

      (Sorry about the previous post but I wrote a longer comment and they wouldn’t accept the login.)

      • Interesting idea. I was just pointing out that the “warnings” about overuse of prepositions amount to nothing if the writing is strong. I like the idea of the kennings.

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