A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

First Lines

The first few lines of a poem are important ones. They have to arouse our interest and curiosity so that we want to read on. This introductory line or two may shock, and grab us by the throat; alternatively, it may seduce and captivate us in more subtle and gentle ways.

Some favourite first lines come immediately to mind. How about the stunning start to Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table . . .

Like a patient etherised upon a table! This must be one of the most original and daring similes in any poem ever written.

I've always loved the sonnets of Shakespeare and the poems of Keats. Who could resist: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate . . . or When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past . . . or  My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk . . . or Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun . . . 

The opening to Coleridge's Kubla Khan thrilled me from an early age: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree:  Where Alph, the sacred river, ran  / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea . . .

I defy anyone not to read further when Patrick Kavanagh writes: On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew / That her dark hair would weave a snare that I would one day rue . . .

Adrian Mitchell has wonderful, attention-grabbing first lines, including this one from To Whom It May Concern: I was run over by the truth one day . . .

Finally, has anyone composed a more sensational and apocalyptic beginning to a poem than this: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by / madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn / looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly / connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night . . .

These are, of course, the first few lines of Allen Ginsberg's Howl.

I would be fascinated to know any of your own favourite poetic first lines . . .


Chris Townsend said...

Excellent! Five of my favourite first lines are there. Here's a few more:

"I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert." Ozymandias. Shelley.

"I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust
A mountain down and down." Climbing Suilven. Norman MacCaig.

"It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?' " The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge.

Ruth said...


"Nobody heard him, the dead man," (Not Waving But Drowning, by Steve Smith)

"God damn it," (Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch, by Diane Wakoski)

"A 29-year-old stewardess fell ... to her
death tonight when she was swept " (Falling, by James Dickey)

"I could not tell I had jumped off that bus," I Could Not Tell, by Sharon Olds

I could go on all day ... but I can't, gotta go back to work.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for these, Chris. Great first lines, all.

The Solitary Walker said...

Fantastic, Ruth! I did not know some of these, and I'm rushing to the poems, which is a great thing.

Did you consciously realise that all these you chose are to do with death? (The three great — and perhaps only — themes of poetry: God, love and death.)

Peter said...

"Sunlight is blowing westward across the unshadowed meadow. / Night, in its shallow puddles, // still liquid and loose in the trees."

- Charles Wright, "Images from the Kingdom of Things" in his book Scar Tissue.

James Lomax said...

Indeed, very evocative. I've been reading The Wasteland again recently, since you mention Eliot. For me the theme of it is more relevant than ever, and its counterpoint is landscape.

"The sea is calm tonight" Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach.

am said...

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
(The Waking, Theodore Roethke)

The extraordinary patience of things!
(Carmel Point, Robinson Jeffers)

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
(Emily Dickinson)

No other word will do.
(Gravy, Raymond Carver)

Oh, the ragman draws circles
Up and down the block
(Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, Bob Dylan)

Thanks for asking (-:

Rubye Jack said...

the flesh covers the bone
and they put a mind
in there
and sometimes a soul.
(Charles Bukowski, Alone with Everybody)

George said...

I may be all too predictable in this exercise, but my favorite first lines are from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land."

"April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain."

The Solitary Walker said...

Peter — I did not know the poem you quote, and that first line is so evocative...

The Solitary Walker said...

I agree, James, that Eliot's theme in 'The Wasteland' maintains its relevance. And I love that Matthew Arnold poem — a shocker for the Victorian age.

The Solitary Walker said...

Oh, Am, your first lines here moved me so much! I love all the poets you cite. I'm quite speechless in the face of these extraordinary first lines.

The Solitary Walker said...

Rubye — that is wonderful...

The Solitary Walker said...

And George… Eliot is becoming a recurrent theme round here… and deservedly so… a haunting and transfixing introduction to a classic poem of our age...

Susan Scheid said...

I have been listening to Jeremy Irons today read Eliot's Four Quartets (on BBC Radio 4 a few more days). I can't say it has the best first lines, but I enjoyed spotting "ether" come up in this poem, too, in East Coker: "Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing."

I do like the opening lines of John Ashbery's Just Walking Around:

What name do I have for you?
Certainly there is no name for you
In the sense that the stars have names
That somehow fit them. Just walking around,

And here's an opening from Wallace Stevens

There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.

(from The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain)

Ruth said...

I did not consciously realize mine were almost all about death!

I love am's too.

Ruth said...

Oops, should be "Stevie Smith" of course (not Steve).

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your opening lines, Susan. I traced immediately the poems by Ashbery and Stevens, and enjoyed them both.

Cris M said...

I would like to participate too, but unfortunately, the first lines in my mind are in Spanish...

"Para que tú me oigas
mis palabrasse adelgazan a veces
como las huellas de las gaviotas
en las playas." Poem 5, Pablo Neruda

"Te recuerdo como eras en el último otoño.
Eras la boina gris y el corazón en calma.
En tus ojos peleaban las llamas del crepúsculo
Y las hojas caían en el agua de tu alma." Poem 6, Pablo Neruda

"Me gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente,
y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te toca.
Parece que los ojos se te hubieran volado
y parece que un beso te cerrara la boca."
Poem 15, Pablo Neruda (this is one of my favorites as a whole)

Obviously the number 20 is a great famous one... "Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche"

I also like many Spanish poets, I particularly like this poem of Juan Ramon Jimenez, that is said, was written when he decided to walk to find again his inspiration:
"I am not I.              
     I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see,
whom at times I manage to visit,
and whom at other times I forget;
who remains calm and silent while I talk,
and forgives, gently, when I hate,
who walks where I am not,
who will remain standing when I die."

I will try to search a bit about the poems mentioned here, there are many cautivating openings!

Warm hugs,
Cris M

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much for these, Cris M. I love Neruda, and those 20 love poems are exquisite. I struggle with the Spanish, but am familiar with many of them in English.

I didn't know Jiminez, and have just looked him up. Wow, I must investigate further! Thanks for this introduction.