Friday, August 17, 2007

First Two Lines: The Answers

Well, there were no right answers, but I'll at least tell you the names of the poems and who wrote them.

First, however, thanks to all of you who had a shot at my First Two Lines game.

I suppose whether you feel inclined to read on from an anonymous opening two-lines depends largely on personal taste. There were lines that some people loved and others found a complete turn-off.

I do think that all these line-pairs set the scene admirably well for what happens afterwards. But if you didn’t like a given line-pair, it's at least possible you might change your opinion when you know who the author is. That’s interesting in itself. I reckon you’ll ‘hear’ some of these lines in a different way when you know who wrote them. It’s like what Andy J. says about number 8 sounding as if it had been written by an “old English duffer,” but if you heard it read by a young New Yorker in the late 1950s, you’d have completely different expectations of what was to follow.

Reading the words without the author ‘being present’, so to speak, is quite difficult. Number 8 turned some of you off, but of course it turns into a fine poem. And you could bet on the authors of numbers 1, 4 and 6 to deliver from their unconventional opening lines, just because they are brilliant but far from conventional writers. A couple of lines on the brink of pretentiousness can be made to work (sometimes) in the right hands.

Well done to those of who guessed on Geoffrey Hill for number 2 (and to Heather who picked it as a favourite, without knowing who the author was, as she is a big GH fan). I'm impressed! It shows how distinctive Hill’s writing is, and, of course, how well-read readers of this blog are.

Several of you picked out number 3. It guess it shows why this author is so popular, and the same can be said of number 9, which also got a few thumbs up. Of course, they also got one thumbs down and one shrug, and I expected more than one of each. The ubiquity of such poetry is the cause of much division in contemporary UK poetry circles.

Number 7 also got a few votes. It’s a weird poem, quite surreal, but quite compelling and sensually rhythmic as it goes on – at least, I think so. Hedgie worried that it might turn unto “a not-terribly inventive dream poem.” I see the cause of worry, but fortunately the writer’s power of imagination worked overtime on this one.

Number 5 is typical of its author – jaded, cynical and funny, and always writing the same poem rather too often! – and number 10 is probably better known as a novelist for a reason…

I’ve listed the lines again, with the authors, the names of the poems, and the books where I found them.

1. Today, this insect, and the world I breathe,
Now that my symbols have outelbowed space,
- Dylan Thomas: Today, this insect (Collected Poems 1934-52)

2. Covenants, yes; outcries, yes; systemic
disorders like the names of rock-plants, yes;
- Geoffrey Hill: Poem No. 50 (Orchards of Syon)

3. I found the words at the back of a drawer
wrapped in black cloth, like three rings
- Carol Ann Duffy: Finding the Words (Rapture)

4. Unsnack your snood, madanna, for the stars
Are shining on all brows of Neversink.
- Wallace Stevens: Late Hymn from the Myrrh-Mountain (Selected Poems)

5. there’s nothing like being young
and starving
- Charles Bukowski: a place in Philly (Bone Palace Ballet)

6. What innocence? Whose guilt? What eyes? Whose breast?
Crumpled orphan, nembutal bed,
- Edwin Morgan: The Death of Marilyn Monroe (Collected Poems)

7. I sat in the cold limbs of a tree.
I wore no clothes and the wind was blowing.
- Mark Strand: The Man in the Tree (Selected Poems)

8. Not you, lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals
with your studious incursions toward the pomposity of ants,
- Frank O’Hara: To the Film Industry (The New York Poets)

9. It’s told like this:
the five of them, up with the lark
- Simon Armitage: Tale (Book of Matches)

10. We alone can devalue gold
by not caring
- Alice Walker: We Alone (Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful)


Colin Will said...

I've been holding off, not wanting to be the first to comment. Oh, well.

This has been a very interesting and revealing exercise Rob, and I'm grateful. I'm embarrassed that I didn't recognise Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens and Edwin Morgan, all poets that I thought I knew. I liked, I discovered, Mark Strand and Carol Ann Duffy, which doesn't surprise me, but also Alice Walker, with whose work I'm unfamiliar (and must check out). I disliked Geoffrey Hill's opening lines, which doesn't surprise me. I've seldom reached the end of a Hill poem without wanting to throw the book at the wall, that's if I manage to reach the end.

Ben Wilkinson said...

I thought I recognised 5 and now I've had my suspicions confirmed: Bukowski does have the tendency of repeating himself, as you say.

Surprised I didn't recognise the Duffy or Armitage poems here, although neither are from my favourite books of theirs. Less surprising was that I nonetheless chose them as my favourites: kind of confirms the sort of poetry that I not only appreciate, but also the sort that informs my own writing. Interesting to discover that I found Mark Strand's lines stimulating, too: I should really look into that.

It's true you read the lines differently after you realise who wrote them, but I still think that the O'Hara lines are pretty awful, even if I appreciate much of his other work.

This'd be an interesting exercise to do with much lesser known poets, come to think of it. Although if we were to use the first couple of lines from our own published poems, we might get some pretty scathing blind criticism! Still, something to think about perhaps...

zillakiller said...

This excercise has revealed a lot about the prejudices and expectations we place on the opening of a poem, on certain ways of saying things, and perhaps most of all, on knowing the identity of the poet.

That's not to say that reading the poem whole can't undo those prejudices, but I feel almost ashamed not to have been drawn to Alice Walker's words: she is far and away one of my favourite writers.

The worst thing is, I prefer the lines now that I know she wrote them! I have yet to read the poem.

Thank you for this interesting experience.

Anonymous said...

Oh great, I missed Stevens as well! That 'madanna' should have been a clue ...

I was curious to know who sounded so much like Hill if it wasn't him. And on the flip side to Ben, I responded negatively to those writers I don't care for, in Armitage/Duffy. Also the 'bardic bombast' of Thomas.


apprentice said...

I'm with Ben, my choices confirmed they are the sort of poets/poetry that I like and which engage me.
I don't know Wallace Stevens or Mark Strand, I must look them up.

This is an interesting piece on first lines

Matt Merritt said...

Very interesting! I had an inkling that 2 was Geoffrey Hill, although I'd have to admit I've not read that much of his later stuff (I love both Mercian Hymmns and Tenebrae, though).
I'd have guessed at the Duffy poem too, but I didn't get any of the others, although the O'Hara lines sounded familiar.
I think, to be honest, it's unlikely any of us draw too many conclusions from first or second lines. After all, it's not like the first page of a novel - you immediately have the title and the shape of the poem on the page to give you pointers, too.
I rather like the 'blind' issues of The North, though, where they only reveal at the back who's written what.

Rob said...

Thanks for the comments.

I don't think that reacting differently to lines whose author you know is anything to be ashamed of. When you know someone's work and read a new poem by the person, that poem isn't an isolated entity. It carries with it everything else the author has written.

apprectice - thanks for the Maurice Riordan article. Good stuff.

Cailleach said...

I enjoyed that article very much too, apprentice. Riordan gives a lot of food for thought and it would be interesting to compile the lists that he mentions (something to do, when I squeeze out some time!).

Very interesting exercise that you set up here Rob, it exposed my prejudices as to what I liked and didn't like, and no, knowing who the poets were wouldn't have changed what I liked. What I like is very much governed by gut reaction. Thanks for making me think more about it.

Anonymous said...

Rob, I hope you don't mind, I have stolen your idea and repeated the exercise (with new poems) on the Poem Forum - see how you and others get on with this lot...


Anonymous said...

sorry - ignore the ?s at the end of that url.

Rob said...

No problem, Roddy. I've had a look at your thread and am trying to make my decisions.