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