First Lines and Last Words

21 April 2021 on Blog, Storystorm  

First impressions matter when it comes to the way that a reader—or for that matter, an editor— enters a poem. If I am reading for pleasure, I decide whether to keep reading a poem or not because of the first line. Is that unfair? Probably. There could always be a huge payoff despite a limp first line, and great first lines don’t always ensure a reward at the end.

In multiple poetry workshops, my peers discussed the way that we “enter” a poem. Is the first line a door that a reader walks through? If a first line is a door, then what does a closed-door look like? It feels like a dead-end to me if the meaning is opaque or if there isn’t any joy in playing with language. A dead-end could also be a cliché.

What is the role of the first line and what is a “good” one? I like to think of it as a running start that brings the reader immediately into the poem. I like when my curiosity is piqued, when I have to keep reading to understand the line, and when the sentence structure is pushing me forward. I also like when there is joy in playing with sounds and language from the start. I want to feel like there are possibilities and surprises ahead.

There are no “rules” for writing a first line, only considerations. Some questions that I ask myself during revision include: Is my first line buried in my draft? Is my last line actually my first line? Is where I arrive where I need to begin? Am I building momentum?

Here is a selection of first lines from poems that we have published recently on Barnstorm:

“Do What You Will with My Mother’s Shalwar” by Maryam Ghafoor

I wear them without a kameez,

“Days of Hand to Mouth” by Dennis Cummings

We worked until dawn back then—

“Go for Gin” by Audrey Gradzewicz

At dusk, when regal moths kill themselves ignobly

“Habit” by Gail Martin

That was the day I began to paint the rabbit

“God as an Illinois hops farm” by Anna Girgenti

in early July, just before harvest, mud on the frilly white hem

These lines make me want to keep going!

If first lines are difficult to nail, last lines can be even more challenging during the writing process. When we “leave” a poem, what do we leave with? Is it a feeling, a thought, a realization, an opening? Last lines are more difficult to appreciate out of context because they depend on everything that comes before them; they are a culmination instead of a possibility. Hopefully, they are zingy enough to send the reader back to the start again. In poetry, there are no first or last words.

Eve Glasergreen is the poetry editor of Barnstorm. She is a second-year MFA student at the University of New Hampshire. Follow her on Instagram @evgreens.

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