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.
(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.)
Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer
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