2 minutes reading time (373 words)

How (not) to begin a poem

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.

On windows and stacking
On Windows and Fish
 

Comments 9

Guest - Frances Corkey Thompson on Sunday, 18 December 2016 10:27

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

I was hooked. Love the 'disappointed fish'. Some metaphors enjoy being overwrought. Happy frying! And Happy Christmas!
Douglas Hall on Sunday, 18 December 2016 11:04



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.

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.
Guest - Nell Nelson on Sunday, 18 December 2016 11:09

Douglas -- you made me laugh!

Douglas -- you made me laugh!
Guest - Sylvia Herbert on Monday, 19 December 2016 13:42

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

I must remember to tell Philip Larkin or Thomas Hood about that - and even Frank Ifield! ...
Guest - Tara on Monday, 19 December 2016 15:11

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.

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.
Guest - Helena Nelson on Monday, 19 December 2016 18:25

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 ;-)

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 ;-)
Already Registered? Login Here
Guest
Tuesday, 15 October 2019