First Line Poetry

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“One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.”

Permanently, 1st Stanza, By Kenneth Koch

            I have learned that first lines don’t come first. Yes in the technical sense they do, they are the first words read after the title, but they aren’t written first. With all they are expected to accomplish, how could they be? One has to choose each noun, adjective, and verb carefully.

First lines set the tone, voice, point of view, and pace. They provide the essence, the theme, and the setting. They introduce the character, conflict, and tension (Kole, Mary. Writing Irresistible Kidlit. Writer’s Digest Books, OH, 2012). The first lines invite the reader on a journey by stimulating delight, curiosity, horror or empathy (Rogers, Cindy. Word Magic for Writers. Writer’s Institute Publications, CT, 2013).

Instead the first line is cut, polished, and perfected after many drafts. Like the poet who uses few words to accomplish an emotion, so too must the writer. The writer needs to know her story inside and out to attempt these words properly.

I decided to combine my enjoyment of both children’s novels and poetry to help show what works to excite readers’ emotions and hook them.

There is horror in the first line of T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherised upon a table:” This line always gives me chills, but I can’t wait to follow.

The same is true of the suspense of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard book, “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

Lois Lowry’s The Giver has foreboding, main character, and setting, “It was almost December and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.”

Maya Angelou certainly gets my empathy in Still I Rise, “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies, you may trod me in the very dirt but still, like dust, I’ll rise.” I instantly root for her.

The reader may not be familiar with Rick Riordan’s world but they get a hint of it and the main character’s frustration in The Lightning Thief’s first line, “Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.”

I feel the injustice immediately in Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Grey, “They took me in my nightgown.” How could they?

Walt Whitman’s peeks the reader’s curiosity with Song of Myself, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Tell us more about how we are alike and why we too should celebrate.

“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.” This line begins Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Why does the main character believe this? Is it actually true?

Roald Dahl does a nice job of intriguing me in James and The Giant Peach, “Until he was four years old, James Henry Trotter had had a happy life.” Why did he stop?

Robert Frost delights us with the opener of Birches, “When I see birches bend to left and right across the lines of straighter darker trees, I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.”

My favorite childhood book has to be Bridge to Terabithia. Katherine Patterson tapped into all my emotions, but she jump starts me into action with onomatopoeia in the first line, “Ba-room, ba-room, ba-room, baripity, baripity, baripity, baripity—Good.

When it’s finally time for those first lines make a game of it, word play, because it can be fun. Use exaggeration, personification, repetition, sound, vivid words, juxtaposition, disjunction, humor, dictum or axiom. There is magic and power in language. The ways to hook a reader are endless. I suggest you pick up some poetry and get your brain juices pumping.

I leave you with some words of joy. It’s not a first line of a poem, but it has an effect. I hope it brings a smile to your face as it does to mine. Galway Kinnell’s Under the Maud Moon, “(Baby girl) puts her hand into her father’s mouth, to take hold of his song.”

Take hold of your story, craft your first line, and the reader will be willing to sing along.

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