Poetry workshop: First and last lines

lines2We hear a lot about the first line and first paragraph of a short story or first page of a novel – how important it is to engage the reader and hook them into your story. It’s no different for a poem. From your first line, a reader can and does make up their mind about whether to read the whole thing. A generous reader might give you three lines or a stanza, but especially if your poem is on a blog or webpage, it’s too easy to click on to the next one.

You may well resist this opening of mine! You might insist that poetry is more important than flashy first lines, but I’d offer the same rebuttal as I would for fiction – your first lines show the reader many things, and the better the lines, the more confidence the reader has that you can “do the job”. What are those things? Confidence in language, for a start, and a voice. The voice might simply be rhythm and musicality, or it might be more definite. If a poet shows me something new or different in the first line, and keeps going with it, I’ll read the whole poem. An engaging first line pulls me right into the poem, catches my interest, makes me want to know what this poet has to say.

Weak first lines are most often what I call “runways”. A runway is the line (or sometimes even the stanza) that the poet needed to get to the heart of what they wanted to say. A poet who revises well will take out that runway and start with the real poem. A strong first line will also consider the use of enjambment – what is taken over to the next line, what might create anticipation or surprise, what effect this will have. If you rework your first line and make it strong, it will help you to see the rest of the poem with fresher eyes – does every line in the poem stand up against that first line?

Last lines tend to have a different purpose. How often have you read a poem that just ended. Just stopped. And you were left thinking – And? Or worse, so what? There is a difference between creating a last line that neatly sums up the poem (which should be avoided) and one which brings the poem to some kind of closure that is satisfying to the reader but without being didactic or preachy. The last line also shouldn’t repeat the first line (unless it is for a particular effect) nor should it repeat the idea of the first line. Your poem needs to have some kind of progression in it, towards the end.

It can be good to surprise the reader in the last line, especially with a resonant image. But you shouldn’t suddenly introduce a whole new idea. The last line helps to keep your poem cohesive, like the last thread in a web. One test is to just write out your first and last lines, one under the other, and compare them. Is one much stronger than the other? Which one needs more work?

We’ll look at line lengths and line breaks in our next workshop post. Stay tuned!

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  1. Julie Richards says

    I like the term ‘runways’. I’ve always referred to it as clearing the throat – like a singer does before beginning a song. I think some writers (and this includes those working in any genre or medium) think that their first lines or pars are a genuine beginning, when really they’re only warm-ups in preparation for the actual event.

    • Julie, I like your term, too – clearing your throat! Funnily enough, I workshopped two poems today with a poet friend and guess what she said – er, those first few lines could probably be deleted!

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