With an assertive statement or sweeping claim, a gauntlet you want to drop for the sake of circling it.
Tomaz Salamun begins “Totems On Back Roads” with the statement:
“There is no difference between a murderer
and a sip of wine.”
Then he proceeds to circle the gauntlet (and poke or enjamb) the next line:
“Delight in stopping
the flow of blood.”
And the reader circles it with the poet until finding one’s self encircled is the turn.
In the middle of an interesting action, all senses wired to it.
Like Alice Bolin begins “Why Not Me” with:
”When I close my ears with cotton balls
all I hear is my weird brain rustling.”
In an orgy of sonorous syntax that sets the beat and readies the breath.
Like Sasha West in “How To Abandon Ship”:
“Cows calve, horses foal, goats kid, but women do not child.”
West jimmies verb against adverb straight through the poem.
In an epistolary entreaty to a surprising object.
Dear bird, dear branch, dear ringworm that ruined my life in second grade…
See Carmen Giminez Smith’s opening to “First Coda”:
“Dear poem. do no justice”
Or Sarah Burke’s “Dear Desert”, addressed to an improper noun made intimate:
“I expected a wasteland of dead rock
whittled to dust. Instead I found you.”
With a strange memory that frames the poem and sets the stage.
Megan Peak’s poem “Sex Ed” starts straight puts the reader in the chair right away:
“I remember wondering whether hips were like cake.”
With a negative assertion, on the X-is-not foot.
Like Megan Peak’s “Suburban Requiem” launches into a litany of what is buried, or what must not be the case:
“No girl-tongue in the mouth. No street of magnolias.”
None of the props integral to the place.
In the middle of a memoir or diary you’ve been reading, in a space with no past and no future.
I can’t stop thinking about what Sylvia Plath journaled on July 17, 1955:
“I cannot live for life itself: but for the words which stay the flux. My life, I feel, will not be lived until there are books and stories which relive it perpetually in time. I forget too easily how it was, and shrink to the horror of the here and now, with no past and no future. Writing breaks open the vaults of the dead and the skies behind which the prophesying angels hide. The mind makes & makes, spinning its web.”
I feel like you could pinch any small fragment from this entry and wind up face-first in a poem.
As a completion or modification of the title.
Claire Wahmonholm begins her poem, “In the Land Where Everything Is Already Trying to Kill Me, I Enter A New Phase of My Life In Which It Would Be Very Bad If I Died”, with:
“because now there is a child and its mother is burning
with rapture and terror and has my eyes and teeth.”
Note that the poet doesn’t capitalize the first letter of the first line.
With an “if” statement or hypothetical that lays down the terms of the image debate.
As in “Beyond Love” by Emma Bolden, which begins so perfectly:
“If the saints are to be believed..”
In the middle of emotional sparseness, with only the bones, the rawness, the statement of facts.
See Jenny George’s exquisite “I Love You.”
In the accusatory tone, with finger pointed, drawing reader into complicity.
See how Rae Armantrout does this in “Distribution”:
“You think category
isn’t sexy, isn’t
sex. Seems you’re wrong.”
Notice how the lack of question sets the tone and prepares the reader.
By quoting lines from another poem.
Like Matthew Olzmann does in “Letter Beginning With Two Lines by Czeslaw Milosz”:
“You who I could not save,
Listen to me.”
With a sensory ambiance that will be rubbed to elicit a refrain or a restatement.
Kwame Dawes begins “On Blindness”:
“These may be the edges of a long gloom—”
And then spends the poem filling out this long gloom, using the word again in different places so that it feels both ordinary and extraordinary. Thickening this ambiance with repetitive use of a kinned word like “shadows”. Layering the surface with a sort of blending technique that reminds me of pastel painting.
Note how the title helps the reader “see” the coming darkness.
With an abstract statement that lifts the eye from the page.
Like Carl Phillips in his impeccable poem, “Civilization”:
“There’s an art
to everything. How
the rain means
April and ongoingness like
that of song until at last”
Elizabeth Bishop comes to mind— losing as an art form. Note how Phillips repeats the first line at the end of the poem only to turn it. Take note of how he does this.
With a bad pun.
Like Jeffrey McDaniel’s line in “Play It Again, Salmonella”:
“I’m a card-carrying member of a canceled party.”
McDaniels doesn’t start with the pun. But he could. And you can.
With a matter of fact that isn’t, quite.
Like Anne Carson in “Wildly Constant”:
“Sky before dawn is blackish green.”
Carson veers back and forth between what she experiences/perceives and what something means while querying the act of signing or signaling at its root.
With a title that involves a list or lays out the list a poem will attempt to provide.
Dick Allen’s “What You Have To Get Over” starts:
“Stumps. Railroad tracks. Early sicknesses,
the blue one, especially.”
The reader knows what Allen will do even as he switches into providing context and then going back to listing, back and forth, the movement.
With an off scientific fact or statistic.
I can’t think of the title off the top of my head, but Brandon D’Amico does this in his recent collection from Gold Wake Press. …And there’s always a plentiful array of random data on the last page of Harper’s magazine.
sources & additional re/sources
Random notebook entries + this amazing list by Mike Young + Elisa Gabbert’s blog (and anything you can find by her on poetry) + Six awesome poets on how they begin a poem + “Best opening lines in poetry” +