First Lines

Maurice Riordan investigates opening lines

 My Zen Master tells me that all it takes to butcher an ox is a single thrust of the knife which, if directed with the right energy to the exact spot, will cause the animal to fall apart into its various edible cuts. I haven't so far found a practicable way of testing this. However, it does fit with my experience of writing poems.


Sometimes I have a subject hanging around: an obsessive image, a title perhaps, or a couple of lines that sound okay. So, I have a go – several goes usually, but they tend to peter out. Then, after hours of trying, or days, even years, something happens – I've no idea precisely what – but it is often a matter of finding an opening line or two, which gives me a "tune" for the poem and also provides that angle of incision that somehow simplifies the writing. There may still be lots of work to do, but now it has the feeling of a process about it. It's as if, in Frost's phrase, the poem starts to ride on its own melting.


I don't have any means of bringing about this moment. The main requirement seems to be patience. But I have noticed a few things about opening lines, as much from reading poems I admire as from my own.


One is that the opening line is also usually a closing off. It literally draws a barrier against the merely autobiographical or circumstantial, the prosy complications of the subject. At the same time it initiates a line of discovery about the subject that hadn't occurred to you in your previous efforts. This is why many good poems begin with declarative certainty, often just a one-line sentence, which registers that moment of excitement: "This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary" (Plath); "And yet this great wink of eternity" (Hart Crane). These, though, are the brilliant first lines, and one learns little from them. They can't be engineered. They tend to come while you're watching television or sitting on the can. Or they don't come at all.


But there are openings that draw on a bit of craft too. Take Larkin's "Once I am sure there's nothing going on". The poem starts with the sentence in gear, with a syntactical push from "Once". Something has to follow: next line, "I step inside, letting the door thud shut". And there we are inside the world of the poem: another church. You'll find such push-start words (If, When, So, After, etc.) all over indexes of first lines.


Better still if the poem gets underway dramatically at the same time. Donne's "For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love" and Carol Ann Duffy's "The most unusual thing I ever stole? A snowman" are such first lines, tipping us straight into the situation of the poem.


Another merit of these examples is that you hear them. And that's essential: a poem only becomes a poem when it engages the ear. One way to make sure this happens is to begin with something spoken. Simon Armitage's "Yes, love, that's why the warning light comes on" gets several things going at once, including the fact that you can't help but hear it.


There are slyer ways of catching the ear: one common trick is to issue an invitation, "Let us go, then, you and I"; another is to give a command, a great favourite with Auden: "Consider this and in our time"; "Watch any day his nonchalant pauses, see". The "command" device has the added advantage that it offers a single route for the poem to take. Poems love rhetorical tunnels: the single sentence, the unmediated monologue, the series of questions or commands. With that first line often comes a strong hint of just such a structure. Carol Ann Duffy's 'Adultery' uses commands from start to finish (though they turn into accusations as we go).


Poems don't always begin with memorable lines. "Of course I may be remembering it all wrong" isn't very promising. But that's how Elizabeth Bishop starts 'Santarem', one of her most memorable poems. It is an example of the penny bet, the bluff disclaimer that hides a winning hand. No doubt she got this from Frost, the past master of the casual opener: "I wonder about the trees", "When I see birches bend to left and right", "Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day".


I'm sure other tricks can be gleaned from checking through the first line indexes of good anthologies and collected poems. Indeed, I'd suggest just that – and making an index of your own first lines. Then compare. This is a useful diagnostic exercise. Fun too. How many times does Auden start with "I", how many times Heaney?


Once you have the opening lines, you should listen to them. Think of yourself as extending their music. The poem may well modulate as it unfolds, but it must still hold together as a rhythmic unit. The beginning should act like a spell to summon the rest of the poem and keep it true – so go back to the start every time you take a run at it. Poets for thousands of years summoned the Muse, formally, at the start of a poem. I won't say we do that. But it's no harm to remember.


Maurice Riordan's latest collection, Floods, is published by Faber.

Poetry News, Autumn 2001