First Lines

Although this is an exercise around beginnings, it is not a beginners’ exercise, which tends to have much more structure to support writers still finding their way on the blank page. This is for writers who already have a reasonable level of confidence, and just need the smallest of prompts to get them writing. It can usefully be preceded by a more general discussion around how poems start – the need to come in strongly (in contrast to stepping off lightly at the end), to grab the reader’s attention by bringing them right into the action of the poem without unnecessary preamble.

Preparing for the exercise is half the fun of it, as it will send you back to your bookshelves to find poems you like with strong opening lines that can lead off in a range of directions. I have a list of around twenty, which changes as I come across new poems that excite me. However, I’m always aiming for a particular mix. So there are some that clearly invite both writer and reader into a personal narrative – “Let us go then, you and I” (TS Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), “Criminal, you took a great piece of my life” (Rosemary Tonks, “Badly-chosen Lover”). Others offer a statement to be explored or a question to be answered – “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you” (Claudia Rankine, “Citizen [Part 4]”), “What happens to a dream deferred?” (Langston Hughes, “Harlem”). I also include a few that take the writer very specifically into another person’s voice / experience – “I was nearly killed here, one night in February” (Tomas Tranströmer, ‘Solitude [I]’), “Dusk, deserted road, and suddenly I was a goat” (Jo Shapcott, “Goat”). It’s worth remembering that often the very simplest of lines can lead to the most startling new poems – a personal favourite of mine is “We left before I had time” (Julia Copus, “The Back Seat of My Mother’s Car”).

In the session I will walk around the room reciting the whole list twice, having encouraged students to pay attention to which line seizes their attention most strongly. Once a student has chosen their first line they then write whatever poem they want to hat follows on from that beginning; they have total freedom to go wherever they wish. It’s useful to ensure that more time than usual is left for the reading out after the writing has finished, as it’s interesting to see how students’ poems differ from (and sometimes improve upon!) the original poems. The use of a first line as a starting point for a new poem is a well-established convention in poetry world, but proper author acknowledgement does need to be given when the poems are published, by adding an epigraph below the title (“With a first line by X”).


This exercise was provided by Alan Buckley