Tuesday, January 02, 2007

First Lines

Until I’ve got the first line right in a poem, I’m rarely happy to continue for long. I might alter, or even cut, the line later, but it’s got to have the necessary tone, voice, rhythm, sound etc. already in place. The first line doesn’t need to be dramatic or attention-grabbing in a sensational way, but the rest of the poem must wear its clothes, so to speak.

A first line sets up expectations regarding a poem’s voice. The poem may subvert or confirm those expectations, but it can’t ignore them.

A good and apt first line doesn’t guarantee a great poem. But if you don’t have one, the poem is bound to fall flat.

One of the reasons Michael Mackmin’s Twenty-Three Poems (HappenStance)is such an interesting read is because of the quality of the first lines. Here’s a selection.

Tom Grix is dead and his meadow sold, the man who…
Never trust a memory
Moving deliberately among bees
Pale but not the moon, not that
I have been faithful to our peculiar love
A kiss. The kiss. Just lips touch, press
‘Because of fear I always hurried into love’,
In her black swimsuit she stands in the boat
My sweet birdwatcher
The bug that causes madness
When I say ‘they are cutting the barley’
Music always belongs to God, if I could sing

Do they make you feel you’d like to read on?

In addition, for the last few days, I’ve been reading Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle, and besides being impressed, awed at times, by the quality of writing, I’ve also noticed the quality of the first lines there too:

In an age of bare hands
‘We were killing pigs when the Americans arrived.
Early autumn morning hesitated
If I wasn’t there
He’s not in view but I can hear a step
A first green braird: the hawthorn half in leaf.
The road taken
Barrie Cooke has begun to paint ‘godbeams’,
Into your virtual city I have passed
For the bark, dulled argent, roundly wrapped
Not the brown and fawn car rug, that first one
Fiddlehead ferns are a delicacy where? Japan? Estonia?
And so with tuck and tightening of blouse
Dorothy young, jig-jigging her iron shovel,
The mass and majesty of this world I bring you
Spoken for in autumn, recovered speech

4 comments:

James Sheard said...

For me, it's the first two lines which shape both the quality and course of the poem. It's interesting how often the opening pair deploy different strategies (big flat sensory line + strong voice marking, for example). How about:

November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.
Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone

(Geoffrey Hill)

Ben Wilkinson said...

I agree that the first line has to be interesting and engaging if a poem is to be written well, even if, as you say, it is later replaced with something more substantial, appropriate, or fitting. Depending on the poem, I suppose this can include the first two or three lines, but then for poets who utilise long lines to excellent effect (David Harsent, for example), the first line is often enough of an appetiser. Glad to hear you're enjoying District and Circle by the way: I bought the collection in hardback when it was first released (a rarity for me), and thoroughly enjoyed it. Heaney seems to have returned to form after the somewhat disappointing Electric Light.

Matt Merritt said...

That's exactly the way I work, Rob. Great way of putting it - "the rest of the poem must wear its clothes".
I've just finished Mackmin's book, and think it's excellent, and the opening lines work superbly. I must get hold of Heaney's book soon.
Hope you're having some luck sorting the leak out - I've had the same problem, the gales having ripped some of the flashing away from my chimney.

Rob said...

Jim - that's an interesting point on the opening pair. I guess it varies how many lines it takes to give the poem its necessary distinctive start.

I plan a follow-up to this post to show how how some of the lines I quoted affect the continuation of their poems.

Ben - yes, I wasn't too keen on Electric Light either, but District and Circle is very strong.

Matt - it's stopped raining and the wind has gone down. It will be next week before the roofing man can come to take a look. So I hope there's no storms before then.