B is for Beginnings

Posted by on Apr 24, 2019 in ABC's of Writing (for Beginners) | Comments Off on B is for Beginnings

The way a poem begins matters more than anything else. If you can’t engage a reader or listener right away, all the other beauty you write will not reach them.

Some years ago, at a conference, I heard an editor say that he makes a decision on a poem by the end of the first line, and feels no compunction rejecting it straight from that impression. I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

Your first line has to sing or scream or quietly pull the reader in enough that they will continue. Let’s look at some poems that do this well. (I hope you will explore these poems to their conclusions on your own.)

The first line of Lynda Hull’s “Jackson Hotel” — “Sometimes after hours of wine I can almost see” — pushes the reader to ponder the narrator’s situation and the revelation. An emotional reveal is hinted at in that first line. We are encouraged to read on because of that enjambment coupled with a compelling subject.

On Hull goes, parsing what we need to know — “the night gliding in low off the harbor / down the long avenues of shop windows” — and by the end of the third line, we’re traveling the city, moving in from the water, waiting to see what will happen. Gradually, we return to the narrator, and enter the lonely winter, lonely apartment, the huge promise of forgiveness that comes.

Because of that intriguing start and long stretch toward the discomfort of what she wants to tell us, we stay with the words and emotion as it unfolds.

Let’s look now at a poem from Frank O’Hara that begins with the single line declarative statement: “Lana Turner has collapsed!”

Of course, we’ll read on. That line is so urgent. We need to know more. And the more that follows shifts into a lighter experience. O’Hara writes:
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky (2-9)

There is confusion. The weather is doing everything all at once. In fact, we read through inclement weather for eight lines before we get back to the subject at hand: the surprise of the first line.

W.S. Merwin’s poem, “Thanks,” begins with the single word: “Listen” — a directive, an order to do something. At this point, we don’t know what we are to listen to, or why; even so, there’s power enough in that first line to move forward. With little investment to this point, why not just listen to where the poem goes? Take your eye and ear through the next line, and the next…?

I love this poem with its many twists and turns. It’s true, we don’t have a road map at the start, but a reader moving through the poem will be rewarded.

Now, let’s take a quick look at Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion,” an astounding poem filled with tremendous angst over socio-political issues of the time.

The poem has its dread and sharp teeth already bared for you in the title, but then states: “Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter, / Out of black bean and wet slate bread, / Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,” (1-3), and I am desperate to understand where the poet wants to take me.

Every image is strange and strong, and the sounds are remarkable. (Who else would write “the candor of tar…?” What does that even mean?) With every line, I am determined to pursue the poem as much as it is pursuing me. I wouldn’t be able to muster this persistence without the incongruous language, the anger, and the difficult imagery in this puzzling and haunting poem.

A good place to end our exploration of beginnings is with a quieter poem, Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise,” which begins: “I got out of bed / on two strong legs” (1-2). These lines are straightforward syntactically and contextually. The poem begins with a subject and verb, then branches in an unexpected direction.

I begin to wonder what she means, “two strong legs.” It seems clear, but why say it? And that end-stopped line holds me for a moment. By line 3, the poem redirects. She follows a pattern throughout this poem: simple thought, more redirecting — periodically changing how much information she allows in each line.

A discussion of beginnings must include mention of titles. Use them to your advantage; they are the first entry into the poem. But then those initial lines must draw the reader in. We’ve looked at examples that, to my mind, do so in a variety of ways: a trailing off, panic, directive, strong imagery, concision.

What will you do to make readers willing to pause their lives enough to go further in your poem?