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Best Opening Poetry Lines

Categories: Poetry Craft Tips, Robert Lee Brewer's Poetic Asides Blog, What's New.

Everyone has their personal list of best opening poetry lines–or at least, everyone should have their list of favorite opening lines. While the first line of a poem isn’t the most important for the whole poem to work, it can often guide whether a reader keeps reading through to the end.

Here are some of the best opening poetry lines according to me:

  • “Let us go then, you and I,” from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
  • “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” from Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”
  • “Because I could not stop for Death,” from Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death”
  • “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
  • “I have gone out, a possessed witch,” from Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind”
  • “He came home. Said nothing.” from Wislawa Szymborska’s “Going Home” (translated from Polish)

 

There are so many other amazing opening lines, but these are the first ones that spring to my mind. Upon further reflection, I see that 5 of the 6 are written in first person. Does this mean that all great opening lines in poetry use the pronoun I?

Of course not! If anything, it probably says something about myself–or American poetry in general, since those five are all famous American poets. Regardless, it’s interesting to make a list and then figure out why those lines are so compelling to us as readers. As poets, we can then try to duplicate (without plagiarizing) that opening line success.

What makes for a great opening line?

As with fiction or nonfiction, a great opening line in poetry should be compelling, urgent, and/or unusual. The main key to any opening is that the reader should feel the need to continue reading to find out what happens after that first line.

I speak from experience that some books of poetry have been purchased or not purchased based on the opening line of a random poem. So it’s not just the art of poetry that’s at stake in that opening line, but the commercial value of poetry as well.

Fair or not, the opening lines of poems carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Of course, a great poem should continue to build momentum and provide a satisfying conclusion. That is, if the first line is the best line, a reader will leave the poem feeling unfulfilled–or even cheated!

What are your favorite opening poetry lines?

Talking poetry isn’t any fun when it’s just me doing the talking. So I want to know what opening lines really sing to other poets. Please share in the comments below. The more great lines we gather the more we’ll have to study.

So share-share-share!

(By the way, I want to send some love in the direction of Brian Klems, online editor of WritersDigest.com, who actually inspired this post with his own What’s Your Favorite Opening Line to a Book post.)

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About Robert Lee Brewer

Senior Content Editor, Writer's Digest Community.

36 Responses to Best Opening Poetry Lines

  1. Juanita Lewison-Snyder says:

    “First, I would have her be beautiful, walking carefully upon my poetry at the loneliest moment of an afternoon, her hair still damp at the neck from washing it…” (from Ted Kooser’s “Selecting A Reader”)

    “He had come to the age when his health had put cardboard in all of its windows…” (from Ted Kooser’s “Uncle Adler”)

    “Something is calling to me from the corners of fields, where the leftover fence wire suns its loose coils…” (from Ted Kooser’s “In the Corners of Fields”)

  2. DanielAri says:

    I’m loving this conversation!
    Bruce, Karen, Jane, Marie, Yolee, ChristineA… and of course, Robert.

  3. handyman43127 says:

    I have tasted the sweetness of life on my lip’s, what now shall I do that she has placed bitterness on my tongue? I loved this as a kid, and it was from a very old book. I can not remember who wrote it, but if you can help me please feel free to jog my memory. Thanks

  4. Karen31 says:

    This is a great question, Robert – I’m late to the party and many, many of my favorites are already posted, but here are a few more.

    All of these from e.e. cummings, my first poetic god:
    “Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond”
    “Buffalo Bill’s/ defunct”
    “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r”
    “i sing of Olaf glad and big”
    “i like my body when it is with your”

    One of many from Billy Collins:
    “The name of the author is the first to go”

    Unforgettable from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
    “How do i love thee? Let me count the ways”

    And one of my own:
    “Moon is to wane as ebb is to tide”

  5. Bruce Niedt says:

    I almost forgot a great opener from one of my favorite contemporary poets, which is also a great aphorism:

    Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,
    Right solitude oils it.
    (Jane Hirshfield, “Vinegar and Oil”)

  6. Yolee says:

    MariaElena, yes that it a beautiful line from Psalms 42

    I also love the simplicity of Desiderata”s
    ” Go Placidly amid the noise and haste
    remember what peace there may be in silence. “

    • Karen31 says:

      Yolee,
      I was just remembering this wonderful poem while I faced down the change-of-class rush at the library desk this morning, and now you offer it again. Thanks!

  7. Jane Shlensky says:

    Oh, my, friends, you’ve named so many beloved poems and a few I didn’t know–fuel for further reading.

    Along with Prufrock’s first line, I like Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree, “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…” It makes me want to arise and go along.

    Roethke’s My Papa’s Waltz: “The whskey on your breath/ Could make a small boy dizzy”

    Wordsworth: “I wandered lonely as a cloud…” and “The world is too much with us…”
    Williams: “So much depends”…you could write a thousand poems with this one, no?
    Hopkins: “Glory be to God for dappled things…” and “Margaret, are you grieving/ Over Goldengrove unleaving? Pied Beauty and Spring and Fall (especially in the fall on that last one)

    Hughes: What happens to a dream deferred?
    Dylan Thomas: as well as those you’ve named: Fern Hill, “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs…lovely
    Arch Macleish’s ars poetica: “A poem should be palpable and mute/ As a globed fruit…”
    John Donne’s “Canonization” makes me smile: “For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love”
    and Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach has the simplest, sweetest first line ever for such a turbulent poem wrestling with the world: “The sea is calm tonight”. Clearly, the poet is not.
    Ted Koozer has some nifty first line images too: His Widow’s “She’s combed his neckties out of her hair” or “The very old are forever hurting themselves” or “the first few wounds are nearly invisible” so many more

    Nancy, here’s a game we can play at conference. Thanks for the reminders of wonderful lines, Robert and friends.

  8. Yolee says:

    Awesome first lines.

    There’s just no accounting for happiness,
    or the way it turns up like a prodigal
    who comes back to the dust at your feet
    having squandered a fortune far away. (Happiness)

    I am the blossom pressed in a book,
    found again after two hundred years. . . (Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks)

    Both by Jane Kenyon

    When he was four, I taught my son Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, #43
    “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways..”
    It holds a special place in my heart.

  9. ChristineA says:

    To him who in the love of Nature holds (Bryant)
    Take this kiss upon the brow! (Poe)
    O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done; (Whitman)
    I have a rendezvous with Death (Seeger)
    so much depends / upon (Williams)

    And pretty much anything by Dickinson!

  10. Linda.H says:

    The other day I was ricocheting slowly – Billy Collins/The Lanyard
    Do not go gentle into that good night – Dylan Thomas
    Arithmetic is where numbers fly like pigeons in and out of your head. – Carl Sandburg/Arithmetic
    Tie your heart at night to mine, love, – Pablo Neruda
    I, too, sing America. – Langston Hughes/I, too
    Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul – Emily Dickinson

    and many more

    And who could forget Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways..”

  11. jacq says:

    “Ope not thy lips, thou foolish one” by Elizabeth Siddal

  12. Bruce Niedt says:

    Good list, Daniel, including your own – definitely makes me want to read them. Nice pick on the Larkin, too – one of the all-time “grabber” first lines!

  13. DanielAri says:

    Thinking of the poems I have memorized, some of my own, but mostly others, I see that many are written in the first person. I memorized these because they are among my favorites, first lines to last. Here’s a rough smattering:

    “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.” (Roethke)
    “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” (Roethke)
    “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree” (Yeats)
    “We were very tired, we were very merry—” (Millay)
    “Whispering to each handhold, ‘I’ll be back.” (Oliver)
    “Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.” (Milosz)
    “When my dreams showed signs / of becoming / politically correct” (Rich)
    “Poet professor in autumn years” (Ginsberg)
    “Love the quick profit, the annual raise” (Berry)
    “l(a” (Cummings)
    “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary” (Poe)
    “Your great mistake is to act the drama / as if you were alone…” (Whyte)
    “They f*** you up, your mom and dad” (Larkin)
    “I’m going to spend the next part of my path / away from you.” (Ari)
    “All is watchword, spelling outer rings, falling into a frame, starting again.” (Ari)

    Oh, so many more!

  14. edecaria says:

    Well, since someone brought up Shel Silverstein, you’re all welcome to join a similar discussion at Think Kid, Think! on whether opening lines in poems FOR KIDS are memorable in the same way that they seem to be for general audience poem and novels. (Thank you, RLB, for the inspiration — we’ve got a great conversation going among kids’ poets and enthusiasts back at my site.)

    One of my favorite openers is from Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” To me, that is compelling, urgent, AND unusual.

    -Ed

  15. Bruce Niedt says:

    Let me turn this around a little: What do you think are some of the best first lines YOU have written? One of my favorites of my own poetry is “All the clocks in my house are set to different times.”

    • Linda.H says:

      I remember reading that one, Bruce. At the time it caught my attention not only because it is a great opening line but because, ironicall, at the time all the clocks in my house DID have a different time.

  16. Bruce Niedt says:

    Sundays too my father got up early…. (Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”)

    I have to think some more on this – some of my other favorites have already been mentioned.

  17. Domino says:

    ” THE wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees” is the first line from Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman.” Must be my favorite since I felt impelled to memorize it. ^_^

    “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary” from Poe’s “The Raven” has always been one of those dramatic, wonderful beginnings that makes me want to read on.

    How funny, I had no idea my favorites would be these Gothic wonders. ^_^ Thanks for making me think about it, Robert!

  18. mexmiel says:

    Although I am not a great fan of the much of the poetry of e. e. cummings, the first line of one of his poems his poems has always stood out for me: “anyone lived in a pretty how town” The poem speaks to life in society today although it was written many years ago.

  19. I can’t say I’ve finished Howl, but that’s one of my favorite lines of all time.

  20. jody on edge says:

    When Aedh (He) Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, Yeats has him begin with the line: “Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths…”. As I reader, I immediately get pulled in by such a fascinating idea (if any human had such a poetically immortal capability). In that moment, I’m set in his fantasy. His idea begins big and broad and universal, but as the ending softens, it doesn’t disappoint – because it becomes so immensely (and emotionally) personal. “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

  21. Marie Elena says:

    I have quite a mixture.

    As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. – King David, the Psalmist, from Psalm 42

    Do not go gentle into that good night – Dylan Thomas, from poem of same name

    She walks in beauty like the night – Lord Byron, from “She Walks in Beauty”

    So you haven’t got a drum, just beat your belly. – Shel Silverstein’s “Ourchestra” (I not only adore the opening line, but the title as well!)

    Somebody has to go polish the stars. – Shel Silverstein’s “Somebody Has To”

    And I am going to show my ignorance here, as I don’t recall if it is an opening line – one of my favorite lines of poetry is “Our truest life is when we are in dreams, awake” – Henry David Thoreau

    • jody on edge says:

      My boys & I loved reading Shel Silverstein together. Not too long ago, we saw a wonderful little pre-movie clip of a young boy following in the generational footsteps of his father & grandfather – learning to polish the stars. Despite the darkness of the movie theater, when my teenage son looked over at me, I could see his eyes light up. All those years later, he recognized in front of him what had played out in his mind’s eye again and again! Poetry has a way of melding us together in understanding.. :)

  22. just reading everyone elses’ brings tons to mind
    yeats

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

    That is no country for old men. The young
    In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
    —Those dying generations—at their song,

    WHEN you are old and grey and full of sleep,
    And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
    And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
    Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

    dylan thomas

    Never until the mankind making
    Bird beast and flower
    Fathering and all humbling darkness
    Tells with silence

    Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
    About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

    One problem with identifying great opening lines is that they often come from poems that we have read and appreciated many times before. The opening line triggers an anticipated joy and remembered joy from all of the other times we have read the poem. Maybe one way to gauge a great opening line may be how many times it has been stolen and made into a clichéd book title or movie.

    John Donne seems to me to be heavily borrowed from-

    PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he
    knows not it tolls for him;

    No man is an island,
    Entire of itself.
    Each is a piece of the continent,
    A part of the main.

    Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee
    Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

    Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,

    Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
    As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

    Come live with me, and be my love,
    And we will some new pleasures prove
    Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
    With silken lines, and silver hooks.

    Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
    How little that which thou deny’st me is;
    It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
    And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;

    For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,
    Or chide my palsy, or my gout,
    My five grey hairs, or ruin’d fortune flout,

    the last ones aren’t book titles but he can really capture the imagination with stark images and musical language

  23. seingraham says:

    I think forever I will love Dylan Thomas’, “Do not go gentle into that good night” – it was the first poem I remember wanting to memorize and appreciating for its own sake, not because I had to, for school; I also love the villanelle so the fact that it has a great first line became a bonus.

    I’m not sure Sylvia Plath ever wrote a first line I could resist – she had a knack. One that sticks with me tho’ is from her popular poem “Tulips” – “The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.”

    And Anne Sexton in her book “The Awful Rowing Toward God” had many wonderful lead-ins but I find myself returning to “The Sickness Unto Death” sometimes for this: “God went out of me as if the sea dried up like sandpaper, as if the sun became a latrine.” It makes me shudder but I love it and of course, I always read the rest.

    I love the choices the rest of you have made as well and thank you for the exercise Robert but going to an ending instead “I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep” – another great poem and poet (beginning and ending) Night all.

  24. Nancy Posey says:

    Like Mary, I like the way Frost starts “Mending Wall”–the odd syntax–perhaps a little inside joke, since the “Something” may be frost.

    I also love the syntax of the opening line of Yeats’ “A Deep-Sworn Vow”: “Others because you did not keep /
    That deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine:

    And of course Geraldine Brooks: “We real cool…”

    And Ginsberg: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
    hysterical naked. . . .

    [I could do this all night. I must stop and go to sleep.]

  25. I seem to be drawn to the works of Byron, Shelley and Keats. I love the beauty of their words and their social conscience. My favorite first line would be from Keats.”A thing of beauty is a joy forever;” from Endymion. Without the beauty around us, we might as well die, for we are lesser beings without it. It sounded good to me anyway!

  26. kim says:

    One cannot discuss first lines of poetry without mentioning Frosts The Road Not Taken, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” a personal favorite by a personal favorite. If you are interested in other wonderful first lines, check into some Dylan Thomas. For instance, his poem Lament begins with, “When I was a windy boy and a bit” and another called Poem On His Birthday starts with this line, “In the mustardseed sun,”
    I agree that the first lines of poems can make or break a poet and a book of poetry for me. They are like the first chapter of a book. They draw you in. They should beckon to you, like a lighthouse on the shore after a terrible storm at sea.

  27. Wow, you already picked my absolute favorite – the Eliot line is just beautiful.

    I do like “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” from Mending Wall by Robert Frost, it seems to set the perfect mood for the rest of the poem.

    While it may not be exactly what you were looking for, I’d also add in the opening line from the song “Whiskey Lullaby” written by Bill Anderson and Jon Randall, recorded by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss: “She put him out like the burning end of a midnight cigarette.” The lyrics to that song stand up very well as poetry, and that first line just hits me like a shot to the gut every time I hear it.

  28. Khara House says:

    Personally, one of my favorite opening lines isn’t even from one of my favorite poems. The line is “Sundown, the day nearly eaten away,” from Nikky Finney’s poem “Heirloom.” I love the line, though the poem isn’t particularly one of my favorites … there’s just something about the image it creates in me that gets me every time.

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