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.
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 window courtesy Ron King.