When you’re waiting for the curtain to rise at a theatrical production, you wonder what the stage will look like. Will the first few moments show dazzling scenery or characters prancing about? Will silence or song fill the air? What are you in for, and where will it take you?
The catchphrase “lights, camera, action” captures the exhilarating transition from darkness to light and stillness to dancing. When you stand on the threshold of a poem, you’ll have similar questions and emotions swirling through your mind. What is ahead? How will you relate? And, if you’re the writer, how will you construct the first line?
The power of an opening line should never be downplayed. It’s the gateway to the rest of the poem. Once you’ve chosen your topic (see my article on brainstorming for a discussion of that step in the process), you’re ready to string together a sequence of words to wow readers and arouse their curiosity.
Your first line (and what follows) is an exploration of your voice, and three scenarios can help you bring out its nuances. These don’t encompass all the types of first lines, but in my experience as a poet, they’re exemplary places to start.
1. Ask and Answer a Question
Sometimes a first line is framed as a question that leads to an answer. You might be tempted to dismiss this as cliché, but reserve judgment until you’ve observed the results.
Although T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is mystifying on many levels, it illustrates the advantages of the question-answer format. Before the body of the poem begins, readers encounter an epigram, a short prologue that’s typically quoted from another poem as context. In Alfred Prufrock’s case, Eliot has extracted a stanza from Dante’s Inferno (a famous epic poem about hell) in all its Italian glory. Mark Musa translates it thus:
If I thought that I were speaking to a soul
who someday might return to see the world,
most certainly this flame would cease to flicker;
but since no one, if I have heard the truth,
ever returns alive from this deep pit,
with no fear of dishonor I answer you…
(Canto XXVI, lines 61–66)
Following this preamble, the narrator announces, “Let us go then, you and I…” as a resolution to the question: What words of comfort can be spoken to lost, despairing people?
Granted, this is a very specific example. Not all poets need to resort to epigrams to initiate a question and create the right mood. But the fact remains that Eliot’s tactics are effective. Notice how he employs personal pronouns to ground the imaginary dialogue between reader and writer—a relationship that has the potential to offer solace in the face of uncertainty. It’s as if he’s letting readers in on something intimate and secret.
When you set out to craft an impactful first line, remember that you don’t write in a vacuum. The world around you hums with conversation you can draw inspiration from as substance for your poem.
Emily Dickinson’s quaint little poem “I’m Nobody” features a brilliant variation of the question-answer format. She reacts to an insinuated “Who are you?” and then throws it back at readers, challenging them to participate in the repartee instead of idly listening. Her approach demonstrates that a question doesn’t need to be overt, or even appear in the first stanza—which Robert Frost corroborates in his poem “The Road Not Taken.” His first stanza is an apology directed in response to an accusation or interrogation regarding the road the speaker has decided to travel. Implicit questions like these make your poem instantly intriguing, if not also relatable.
2. Introduce a Theme or Situation
Poems are often built around single words or phrases that characterize the central concept at play. If you’re struggling to express your idea in verse, try whittling it down to its core. Your opening may change between your first and final draft, but the line that births the poem and the line that pulls readers in don’t have to be the same. All that matters is that you carry your theme through the piece so that readers are able to understand it.
In the Fagles translation of The Iliad, Homer begins with one simple, evocative word: “Rage.” It defines the conflict and is the impetus for the tragic hero’s unfolding fate. Alternatively, this kind of opening can take the form of a phrase or, in Dylan Thomas’s case, a command: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Interestingly, Thomas weaves rage into his poem too, lending a commonality to these images and tropes.
Once you’ve polished your poem, don’t be surprised if the first line doesn’t end up being the most important. It ushers readers into your world, but sometimes that’s all it is—a doorway they pass through to discover what lies beyond, as in the case of Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” The situation she calls readers to visualize (i.e., not stopping for death) is undeniably striking. Readers immediately ponder whether it’s even possible. And what will Dickinson say next?
3. Paint a Picture of the Unusual
Poems tell stories—and stories serve to answer questions, provoke thought, and entertain. I’ve described options that achieve the first two goals, but this last section touches on the third. You can delight readers by giving them a glimpse of the unfamiliar.
The purpose of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is clearly historic in nature. Not only is the alliteration in the first couple lines pleasing to the eye and ear, it exudes mystery.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
The word “did” is the beating heart of the first line, portraying the protagonist as an active, conquering, perhaps even towering figure. And the exotic proper nouns add a layer of intrigue to both the rhythm and meter. Homer’s epics display similar traits. These poets use the first line to establish character and setting, as well as voice.
In Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical “Jabberwocky,” the first line doesn’t necessarily have a concrete interpretation, but the inventive language is endearing and memorable: “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves.” How much deeper does this rabbit hole go? Reading onward might reveal.
Likewise, Edgar Allan Poe’s infamous “once upon a midnight dreary” that kicks off “The Raven” piques readers’ interest. Why is the speaker awake at such a ghastly hour? What will ensue? Can anything good or normal happen in the dark? Poe’s emphasis on “once” and “dreary” also capitalize on the inherent storytelling quality of poetry, while again highlighting the weird, the shadowy, and the enigmatic.
Raising the Curtain
As I mentioned in my introduction, this trio of first lines is not an exhaustive list. A much wider array exists, and I encourage you to keep an eye out for the beauty in each one. The first lines I address here, however, are foundational to the process of connecting readers and writers through imagination.
Within the first line, readers and writers uncap the power of voice—to illuminate (Lights!), to envision (Camera!), to move (Action!). It shouldn’t hold the entire burden of a poem’s meaning, but its role as an entry point should never be discounted. Once the stage is set and the characters walk across it, the audience will want to keep watching and listening for what comes next. That, my friends, is the magic of your voice.
Dwelling deep in the forests of New England, Graham spends most of his time reading, taking walks with his dog, and learning new and interesting things (and reveling in cooler, more temperate climates). Born and raised in the Boston area, Graham was homeschooled from an early age. After high school, he proceeded to get a bachelor’s in Literature from Patrick Henry College in Northern Virginia. He currently resides in the Boston area while pursuing a master’s in Education at Gordon College, steeping in the rich history of his home turf and a continued exploration of literature from across the world. He says you should read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, because they are incredible novels. Also, read Robert Frost.