How (not) to begin a poem

Monochrome drawing of a small fish, swimming left to right, with a wide open eye and a slightly perky expression. It is actually J.O. Morgan's fish, from his book 'In Casting Off', the sole illustration in that poem novella.

Thoughts from the reading window.  

The first three or four lines of a poem are make-or-break territory.

If you hook the reader firmly at the start, she’ll follow you willingly right through to the very last syllable.

The poem is one long fishing line (usually with line breaks). The reader is a rainbow trout. The poet’s art is to play that fish and reel it in.

Monochrome drawing of a small fish, swimming left to right, with a wide open eye and a slightly perky expression. It is actually J.O. Morgan's fish, from his book 'In Casting Off', the sole illustration in that poem novella.

But the first few lines may well be where the fishing line, at least in its early drafts, fails.

They’re where the poet is still unpacking her kit, getting ready for Real Poem action. They’re where the poet is most likely to include phrases like ‘I remember’ or ‘I think’. Or ‘As I see the dew on the hollyhocks, I…’ Don’t do it!

The old prose writer’s trick is to delete the first paragraph and start with the second, where things are getting interesting.

I find myself suggesting this often for poems too.

Delete the first stanza? Try starting with the second.

Maybe delete the first three lines? Consider starting with line four.

In fact I scribble this so frequently that it may be worth trying with all poems, just to see how far the opening lines, as they stand, matter.

Then there’s the tangled line. By this, I mean a poem that opens with a lengthy sentence, spreading over several breaks, and it’s just difficult. So it’s like getting stuck in the reeds with a distant view of clear water.

Or the poem that hurls in a really odd break at the end of the first or second line. Jumps and challenges are fun, but not too soon.

Or the opening lines set up a metrical pattern. Or they seem to. And then the pattern drops. So it wasn’t a pattern at all. The disappointed fish is off the hook and floundering.

I’m talking in the abstract. Much better to give examples from my creel.

But I don’t have time in this most pressurised month of the year – and besides, the poets wouldn’t like it.

I have more poems to go and read. Many many more. And other fish to fry.


(I may discuss the over-wrought metaphor next week.)

View from Ron King's window in the highlands, showing a wide horizontal vista of mountains, dark pine trees and an amazingly pink sky, with little ruffled cloudlets. Gorgeous.

View from window courtesy Ron King.

9 thoughts on “How (not) to begin a poem”

  1. I was hooked.
    Love the ‘disappointed fish’.
    Some metaphors enjoy being overwrought.
    Happy frying!
    And Happy Christmas!

  2. I’ve been in a war of attrition with a poem since May 2012; its latest incarnation begins:
    ”While more recent memories start to fade,
    I still recall”

    Oh, well; back to the drawing-board.

  3. I must remember to tell Philip Larkin or Thomas Hood about that – and even Frank Ifield! …

  4. It would have been cool of the author to give examples from well known poems to pin this idea on instead of just proclaiming what not to do.

  5. Dear Tara — you’re quite right.

    But well known poems don’t usually possess these kind of flaws (you don’t get well known for nothing).

    I could have invented versions of my own, and sometimes do, but I have currently 82 sets of poems to read, so I don’t have time.

    But I think the general tip is a good one — think hard about how you open, and consider the possibility of cutting the first few lines.

    And if you want more precise feedback, which is detailed and personalised, send some of your poems before the window closes. The time it takes for me to do this means the blog entries this month are necessarily short.

    Nuff said. Nell 😉

  6. so many poets “write” from material they wander around with in their heads. Lay the “stuff” out on the page and then get vigorous with it, cutting out what is just memoir. Surprise, but don’t shock by adding in random bits to try and be “contemporary” or surreal. Be yourself, a kid who loves to play with words. Let the readers into the game. They’ll play along if the rules are not too strange and cumbersome.

  7. Maurice Riordan calls such openings ‘drawing your breath’ – as if the poet is preparing to get to the point, but hasn’t got there yet. I think part of the difference between an opening which works and one which doesn’t is the question raised in the reader’s mind. In a way it’s like any other narrative, whether it’s Shakespeare’s ‘Tush! never tell me..” which draws the reader into an argument (what are they actually arguing about…?) or Dickens ‘Marley was dead to begin with’ (Who is Marley? What happened to him?’) If the poem opens with an answer (‘Here I am at this place in this time watching the rain’) what questions are being raised? Is the reader interested in this place? Why? Or this time? Why? Are they likely to be interested in watching rain? Only if the rain is in itself interesting? “Where Big Ben stood, the rain is green” might be more striking, though – the place is one we might be interested in, it’s presented in a way which raises a question we might want an answer to (what has happened to Big Ben?) and it raises a problem we might want to know the solution to (how can rain be green?) Ok – such an example is mere trickery, but the idea of the hook is surely to intrigue, to raise some sort of curiosity, which usually means a problem to be solved in reading or questions to be answered. I don’t think it’s too difficult to raise the questions – I think the difficulty is developing a poem so that it offers satisfactory answers.

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