Where Shall I Begin?

Inspiration and instruction in poetry’s first lines.

“Shit are we lost?” begins Debora Lidov’s poem “The Drama of the Gifted Hansel,” which appeared in the Threepenny Review in 2002. I found it again, years after remembering the first line as simply the forehead-slapping “Shit.” And though the wonderful poem enticingly continues—“Should I tell her we’re lost? / If we had some pot . . .”—it is the very first moment of the poem, wired directly into the sparking realization that bread crumbs tank as trail markers, which remained more than a decade as a directive. If the phrase “Once upon a time” marks the front door on which the reader politely knocks, “Shit are we lost?” boosts her through a loft window from which she sees the burning rooms.

My little meditation here is not a scholarly one—merely a personal record of openers that continue to echo and inspire, and a consideration of the many whys of those first lines. Like masses in my generation, I generally write narrative, autobiographical lyric that tends to favor beginnings, middles, and revelations. But when I go back to poems I’ve loved, I see they often start further afield, or more suddenly. “We couldn’t even keep the furnace lit!” blurts Robert Lowell to begin his homage “To Delmore Schwartz,” his friend and onetime roommate. The line barged into the room of my mind, and—owing only to my chasmic gaps of literary history—was the first first line to wake me up. What nerve, what mischief!

Declamatory openings drive the narration with a poke in the ribs and a jaunty spin. “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour . . .” begins Wordsworth in the sonnet “London, 1802,” his exclamation mark like a playful cricket-bat crack in the halls of the sonnet. Hey! Why not try that?

When the first line of a narrative lyric begins outside of linear chronology, I learn something about the starting place of the mind. In “A Private Matter,” a heartbreaking poem by Carol Muske-Dukes, the speaker—whose middle-aged husband, an actor, had recently died of a heart attack far from home—comes across the phone pad her husband made by cutting up his old scripts. Still raw from his death, the speaker doesn’t touch the narrative’s plot for six lines, three stanzas:

You, Never-You, the new vessel.
Dark/light of the sprung soul.

Flung upward or shuddered
up-ringing, iridescent as a fountain:

eyes flickering wide open in sleep.
And on the kitchen sideboard

your old script pages, flipped over;
cut up into memo-pad size. . . . 

Not chronology, but a conjuring, as from mid-air.

Such mid-action openers that bypass exposition and speak from a surge of panic, passion, daring, or revelation endear me in a flash and instruct me on how to get to the page. Marilyn Hacker’s first lines often find the speaker in the immediacy of a raw moment, hanging on to the poem as if by a thread, so that by poem’s end, and by dint of art itself, the netted lines keep her from rock bottom. Triumphantly (even when describing defeat), and with greater reach, bravura, and panache than any other contemporary, Hacker has been most playful in the little rooms of those forms her poems inhabit, beginning with her first lines. In her 1976 volume Separations, Hacker begins “Sonnet”: “Love drives its rackety blue caravan / right to the edge. The valley lies below. . . .” And there I was, as a reader, at the precipice of the next 12 lines; without some intervention, the old beater of an unhappy heart might collapse right where such danger presents. Over time, when I found myself emotionally stranded, her first line often spoke itself to me. In that volume’s title poem, an 18-part sonnet sequence, Hacker begins: “Satisfied lovers eat big breakfasts. I / want black coffee and a cigarette / to dull this cottonmouth. . . .” Eighteen sonnets that all spring from “Satisfied lovers eat big breakfasts,” a phrase fat with its own description of lack of appetite born from unappeased appetite, a one-beat short line phrase needing the “I” to complete it, and putting its foot down on the first beat as only an iamb turned self-serving and emphatic might do. This line, which stands for many deprivations, opens a portal onto the page in which I might hold my own discussion of without-ness.

When chronology isn’t hogging the first line, it might be because obsession, boldness, and directness have cut in. Delmore Schwartz’s own first line, “The heavy bear who goes with me,” from his poem with the same title, defines a preoccupation with a shadowing persona. In the nothing-new-under-the-sun department, I recognized that conceit for myself and cadged it for a poem after his titled “The Yellow Star that Goes with Me.” I might want to do the same with Langston Hughes’s “God,” which begins, “I am God—” Ha ha! That’s gonna be a fun poem to imitate. Or Neruda’s related “It so happens I’m just tired of being a man,” from “Walking Around.” Unapologetic, bald opinion beefs up the confidence of first lines and sets the poem in a clear direction. Edgar Lee Masters’s “Archibald Higbie,” for instance, begins, “I loathed you, Spoon River. I tried to rise above you, / I was ashamed of you. I despised you.” To quote my brother, upon noticing someone’s date sporting chains and handcuffs on her ensemble: “It really sets a tone.” You sure know where line three will go.

In grief, even the front door opens onto the burning house. “Ding-dong: the box of ashes at the door” flies at us from Rachel Hadas’s recent sonnet, “Ashes, Ashes,” in a tale of suddenness that, as her next line says, “Some things happen once and then no more.” The line’s oxymoronic tang haunts the poem. The doorbell heralds not the announcement of the Avon lady, pizza man, or jubilant news of the wicked witch’s demise our subconscious has evoked—the singsong two-tones announce a sorrowful absence. Hadas brings her powers to this crucial moment because we have to use all our powers to accommodate its truth. No matter how long we have been living with death-the-idea, the business end of ashes-ashes-we-all-fall-down brings us down with it in unexpected finality. Be blunt and the irony will take care of itself, she tells us in this line and in her oeuvre; call it like you see it, and you will see more after that. I also sense that the use of “ding-dong” and the related “ding-a-ling,” as if we are being caught out for being flaky human beings who have been using childish euphemisms to imagine and understand. But any of my explications would remain partial. A classicist to the core, Hadas delivers a distillation of an astonishingly large body of knowledge in all her work, and here, in its own remarkable container of a sonnet, of a body itself. Bring everything you want to the first moment, she teaches me: all your grief and wit together.

Like poetry itself, a secret channel exists between the first line and the mind. What forces are at play may never show themselves fully, and some resounding openings attach to memory by more mysterious motives. Ever since Howard Moss handed my undergraduate class a copy of Randall Jarrell’s “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” in 1979, the poem’s first line has captained the troops of first lines, reminding me that observation, cadence, rhyme, and lyricism all prime the poem. “The saris go by me from the embassies,” begins the speaker, “Cloth from the moon. Cloth from another planet.” Where are we? What’s happening?

Bread crumbs. Eat, birds. Help me start.

Originally Published: February 18th, 2014

Jessica Greenbaum’s first book, Inventing Difficulty (Silverfish Review Press, 1998), won the Gerald Cable Prize. Her second book, The Two Yvonnes (2012), was chosen by Paul Muldoon for Princeton’s Series of Contemporary Poets. She is the poetry editor for upstreet and lives in Brooklyn. She received a 2015 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the...

  1. February 28, 2014
     HI McDonough

    The opening lines of “The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock” have always stuck in my mind. The first two lines sound like the beginning of an actual love poem:
    “LET us go then, you and I,
    When the evening is spread out against the sky”

    Then the next line hits like a bag of rocks:
    “Like a patient etherized upon a table;”

  2. March 1, 2014
     Joan L. Cannon

    How I wish I had read this wonderful evocative as well as informative essay
    before I began to write my series inspired by my husband's death. Right
    now, I must begin a new one with the weight of sorrow, ashes, and the
    contradictory burden of absence right at the beginning. A footnote is how
    much I wish for a few first readers--not that any could equal Ms.

  3. March 1, 2014
     Lynn Lawrence

    Thank you Jess for this wonderfully witty, and scholarly piece of work. I
    have often thought about the metaphor of an entrance way when it
    comes to "Where shall I begin? "
    Great first lines are like an apartment without a foyer - you are
    immediately within the thick of it.
    This piece was exhilarating - many new poems to read !
    xo, Lynn