Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The First Two Lines

The first and second lines of a poem set the tone for what lies ahead, so they’re always very important. Below are ten opening two-liners.

Which of them (maximum of three) make you want to read on most?
Would any of them put you off reading further?

Reasons for your choices are welcome but not compulsory. If you know who wrote any of them, don’t give it away (I will reveal the authors - all well known writers - at some point).

1. Today, this insect, and the world I breathe,
Now that my symbols have outelbowed space,

2. Covenants, yes; outcries, yes; systemic
disorders like the names of rock-plants, yes;

3. I found the words at the back of a drawer
wrapped in black cloth, like three rings

4. Unsnack your snood, madanna, for the stars
Are shining on all brows of Neversink.

5. there’s nothing like being young
and starving

6. What innocence? Whose guilt? What eyes? Whose breast?
Crumpled orphan, nembutal bed,

7. I sat in the cold limbs of a tree.
I wore no clothes and the wind was blowing.

8. Not you, lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals
with your studious incursions toward the pomposity of ants,

9. It’s told like this:
the five of them, up with the lark

10. We alone can devalue gold
by not caring


apprentice said...

Hard to pick three, 3,7 and 9 I think, although 4 intrigues me.

BTW many congrats on your "Herald poem"
I'd rather you'd won the Euro Lottery though as I'd have known where to send the begging letters.

Matt Merritt said...

Difficult, but at first reading, I'd go for 2, 9 and 10 as intriguing me the most. I like 1 too.

Cailleach said...

I like 3 best. Mysterious and I want to know more.

Sorlil said...

I'd pick 3 and 4, 3 being the one I also like the best.

Colin Will said...

7 and 10 would make me want to read further. 2 sounds pretentious, 3 has possibilities, 4 I just don't understand, 1 might go either way (mibbes aye, mibbes naw),6 sounds like a rant revving up. I'm aware that expressing a gut reaction like this could lead to embarrassment when I find out who wrote them.

Ben Wilkinson said...

I'd go with 3, 7 and 9, same as apprentice. They all start off using ordinary language in a moving, mysterious and intriguing way...

James Midgley said...

1,3 and 7 for me.

Anonymous said...

1. Distrust this, rather, due to the idea of out-elbowing space (as in outer space?) and being left with 'only' the world. Isn't that Everything, then, pretty much? It sounds dramatic, but there's something too stagey about it. The formality of it makes me think it's going to be a well-crafted sonnet but with no real surprises in it, and too much of the bardic bombast.

2. My 1st choice, if for no other reason than it reminds me of Geoffrey Hill:

"Primroses; salutations; the miry skull
of a half-eaten ram; viscous wounds in earth
opening. What seraphs are afoot."

I like the idea of 'systemic disorders' applied to names (an *ordering* principle) also suggesting a disordered mind attempting to create order by naming.

Line break of 'systemic / disorders' also highlights the tension between order & disorder. The naming also extends to the extract as a whole, with each 'yes' checking them off. No idea what covenants might be, but it appeals to me, so I'll run with it.

3. Not really drawn to this. Maybe just the tone of stock mystery, and that plain narrative style.

4. Not for me. Sounds like Terry Pratchett on a bad day.

5. Nope. Unless it turns out a lot more interesting than this.

6. Nope. Hypothetical questions are the kiss of death: just get on with it.

7. 2nd choice. Want to know what happens next.

8. Nope, bored before this one even began.

9. Nope. "It's told like this" is a horribly arch way to start a poem. Told by whom? By the poet of course, so why pad it out by telling us he/she is telling it as he/she is about to tell it? Pointless.

10. Nope. Too sappy. Not fond of poems which try to coin a new adage for Daily Express readers to mull over.

So, 2 and 7. No idea who wrote them. Good exercise!


Heather O'Neill said...

This was fun. It actually makes me want to read all the poems in their entirety. Even the ones whose opening lines weren't so interesting on first inspection.

On that note, I'll start off with a list of the one's that didn't quite grab me:

5 & 10 - but for different reasons.

5 seems like a typical, cliche situation. But that doesn't mean the rest of the poem wont take me somewhere unexpected.

The words chosen in 10 bore me but the subject matter is interesting. I'm intrigued by what words will follow "by not caring" and wonder at the word choice of "alone" in "we alone" because it highlights "we".

The one that made me want to continue reading the most was #2.

I'll explain in a minute.

But first- My favorite one purely because of the way it sounds (though I like the imagery employed) when reading it is #4. I can imagine that I'll go around saying:

"Unsnack your snood, madanna"

for a very long time. Such great 'n' sounds! ;)But, it's also the sort of phrase that makes me want to shout it out without regard for the meaning of the words.

Second favorite line based on sound was in #6:

Crumpled orphan, nembutal bed

Also, those two images, because of the effective and efficient use of adjectives before the nouns, make me want to read this poem. I find myself saying,"Give me more description like this, please!"

I fear I'm being too wordy, so I'll not explain my opinions on 1,3,7 & 9. I'll just say that I like 1 best in this group, and that 7 is a funny image that gets stuck in my brain, though the rest of the poem might be great.

Ok. Good 'ol #2.

"Covenants, yes; outcries, yes; systemicdisorders like the names of rock-plants, yes;"

I want to know where this is going conceptually, makes me want to know what it all means. Of course, we get some idea from, "outcries" and "systemicdisorders". Something seems to be wrong with the whole. And tell me more about this "covenant". Is there a rift? Is the 'n' echoing with the people by saying "yes"? Am I misreading? It leaves me with questions and curiosity and because of all that, these two lines definitely make me want to read more.

The use of language and idea is fresh. "Systemicdisorders like the names of rock-plants" is an excellent image that, for a number of reasons, sticks with me.

All that said, I'm curious as to who these poets are! :)

Jee Leong Koh said...

2 has my attention. Intriguing juxtaposition and syntax. The beginning of a complex sensual and metaphysical argument.

RcL said...

I only recognise 6 and 9. I most want to read 2 and least want to read 4.

Crysse said...

5, def, I'd think it was going to be funny in a jaded ironic sort of way. And 6, because it has a wonderful harranguing energy and because I don't know what nembutal means.

Found this via Luke's site, it looks a goody!
My blog is

Anonymous said...

Bollocks -- just found out who no.8 is. I love this writer! First two lines on their own made him sound like some old English duffer. Ah well. Alabaster crashes down, etc.

Anonymous said...

Oh --


Hedgie said...

Interestingly enough, not one of them grabbed my attention; as a result, my initial reaction would be to pass by all 10 of them. I'd have to say that any serious temptation to read any of them would have to come from knowing the poet, not from anything in the first two lines. 4, 6, and 8 in particular come off as horribly pretentious and oh-so-poetic; 10 makes me think it's the lead-in to some variety of socialist anti-capitalism rant; 5 sounds like the beginning of a dull, self-congratulatory confessional piece; 7 sounds like it's going to be a not-terribly inventive dream poem. 1, 2, 3, and 9 are a bit interesting but nothing that reaches out to grab me and draw me in. If absolutely forced to pick one, it would probably be 3 because it's rooted in a very specific situation. (My reaction to 2, for what it's worth, was exactly the same as the anonymous who thought of Geoffrey Hill.)

RcL said...

Long live 'horribly pretentious and oh-so-poetic' then. We have enough flat, unmusical narrative poems to last us until 2176.

Ben Wilkinson said...

Hear hear, Roddy.

Andrew Philip said...

Coming late to this, but I haven't read the answers yet so it's still valid. My instinctive choice is the same as ABJ's.

Now to find out how the game ends ...