A few years ago (too many to be able to track down the source again, curses!) I came across a reference to writing a decent poem essentially coming down to “a good first line, plus hard work”. An interesting assertion, and the focus of today’s waffle. Lets begin with some definitions, courtesy of Wikipedia:
“Incipit” is a Latin word meaning “it begins”. The incipit of a text, such as a poem, song, or book, is the first few words of its opening line. … In the medieval period, incipits were often written in a different script or colour from the rest of the work of which they were a part, and “incipit pages” might be heavily decorated with illumination. Though the word incipit is Latin, the practice of the incipit predates classical antiquity by several millennia … today, the practice of referring to texts by their initial words remains commonplace.
Hard to argue against. We do indeed tend to refer to poems by their first line, especially if the title is either very long or not terribly interesting. We do tend to remember first lines. But are they the most crucial aspect of a poem?
Normally I’d say the last line is the most important, being the place you leave the poem. It’s often the thing that stays in your mind, and certainly a dud last line is the surest way I know to kill an otherwise well-made piece. (On the other hand, it’s also often one of the easiest things to fix – amputation for example can work wonders, and often reveals the last line to be redundant.) But then again, if your first line isn’t interesting … will anyone bother reading on? No point having an amazing dessert if the entree puts people off their food.
Another point to consider is something I was told at Glamorgan (again, I can’t remember who told me … argh, middle age is definitely upon me): that the first line should tell the reader what to expect. It acts as a sort of key-signature for the rest of the poem, giving them somewhere to take their bearings from. Think of it as the line that teaches the reader how to navigate through the rest of the poem. Do you generally eschew punctuation? Ok, then make sure the first line (or lines plural) doesn’t include any. Do you mix high and low? An opening line with an example of this will make sure the reader starts off in the right frame of mind, and doesn’t spend half the poem trying to work out what the heck is going on, and who is supposed to be talking. Do you go in for juxtapositions, hard enjambment, jump cuts, funky layout? While you don’t necessarily want to throw the whole box of fireworks into the very first words of the piece, it would be very confusing if the poem started off placidly, with neat end-stopping, full grammatical phrasing, and a single, developed image … and then upended the reader into a maelstrom of postmodernist linguistic chaos. (Although it may be a valuable technique to keep in mind, if destabilising the reader is your aim. Swings and roundabouts. But even here, notice how we’re putting the weight on the first line?)
And a final crumb for cogitation: have you ever looked at your first lines, to see if you have a pattern you follow? This was something we did in the last residency at Glam, and it was really interesting. It turns out that I have (or had – it’d be nice to think I’ve managed to evolve a little since then) a tendency to begin my poems with the words “There is …” (try to resist the temptation to add “a house in New Orleans” if you can) (I can’t). In and of itself, that’s not a problem. But when you hit the same phrase beginning a poem for the fourth or fifth time in a single collection, you’re going to start looking out for it. And that pattern will be the thing you tend to remember; not the words – eloquent though they may be – that follow. These days I try to consciously start in slightly more unexpected ways – things like the “in media res” opening, where you come in after the story has already begun and the action is in full flow (although this can also become an irritating mannerism); the “knock ’em dead” opening, where the line is strange or funny or something designed to make the reader laugh or sit up or react strongly (although the danger here is that the rest of the poem is going to have to juggle live chainsaws to be able to keep the standard up, and that can be tiring to both writer and reader); or the “last first” opening, which begins with the outcome of the story first, and then moves backwards through time to unravel how it was you got there (which requires you to be very deft with your handling of tenses, and doesn’t easily permit you to do much juxtaposition or layering of multiple threads.)
There’s a nifty exercise from The Practice of Poetry that I’m going to give to my students one of these days – Auction: First Lines, by Michael Waters. The idea is that everyone comes up with a potential first line, and shares it with the whole group. Then you start discussing the possibilities – what they each can imagine coming from that start (‘ooh, that would be a great first line for a villanelle’; ‘you could have fun with the sounds in that one – go all-out for rhyme’; ‘that reminds me of the time I went fishing with my grandfather, and all we caught was a used condom and a gumboot, and he started telling me about evading the draft for Vietnam‘). The person who created the line then chooses the person whose suggestions that they most like the sound of, and gives the line away, completely freely, to that person. Who then goes away and writes the poem.
Oh, the possibilities …