Hi folks, here’s another blog on my poetry theories. Enjoy.
Openings – The beginnings of poems, the first lines, are called openings. Carl Sandburg once wrote, “Poetry is the opening and closing of a door…” Probably even more than in a novel or news article, the beginning of a poem, the opening, must make the reader want to read the poem. A poem is even harder because most readers already have apprehensions against poetry.
Most poetry anthologies have three indexes in the back, poets, titles and first lines. Why first lines? Because most of us remember poems by their memorial first lines. Just off the top of my head, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” comes to my mind, Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled.” Think back on your favorite poems, I bet you remember the first lines.
The opening door does not need to be ornate, in modern poetry, it likely should be a plain wooden door, but it does have to have good hinges and be unlocked. The first line does not need to shock or shout, but it does need to be fresh. The first line should set the scene. I like to think it needs to give the reader a place to stand, a reference point for the poem.
My experience as a poet and poetry teacher tells me that early in the rewrite process the right opening is likely somewhere in the poem. Flemish poet, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, thinks that most of us write what she calls ‘on-ramps’ into the poem. The poem should be about the highway, not the on-ramp. The opening of the poem is once you’re on the highway.
Some tricks to writing good openings.
- A trick from playwriting, if the poem is narrative, start in medias res, or in the middle of action. Ex: “Don’t touch that. And stop your whining too.” (David Budbill ‘What I Heard At the Discount Department Store’). It’s clear what happened before and we’re all interested in what’s going to happen and thus are in the poem.
- Open with a strong image. Ex: “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks.” (Wilfred Owens, ‘Dulce Et Decorum’). Doesn’t the line make you want to know what’s going to happen next? If the image is strong enough in the beginning, you can just about say anything afterwards.
- Start with an off-hand remark, or what is known as a penny bet, a bluff disclaimer. Ex: “Of course I may be remembering it all wrong” (Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Santarem’).
- Other choices are to start with a quote, a question, an exclamation, etc. The list goes on. It’s important that the first line sticks to the reader.
But, don’t spend all your bullets in the first line. The first line sets the tone, the attitude, the diction level, follow along with it, but save some ammunition for later in the poem. Start with a grabber and get stronger as the poem goes on. As Robert Frost said, “Poems should start with delight and end with wisdom.”
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