04 April 2011

Great Openings in Poetry

Instead of telling you of my trials and tribulations pertaining to the writing of a poem a day, for the April Poem A Day Challenge, I thought instead I’d discuss some of my influences – poets whose work I admire, poets I read for inspiration, poets who piss me off because I will never, ever be able to turn a phrase as elegantly as they do.

Some poets I admire because of the way they open a poem, the way, in just a few deft phrases, they suck you right in and next thing you know, you are hip deep in the poem and wading for home.  The first is Robert Penn Warren.

Wikipedia Bio:
Robert Penn Warren (April 24, 1905 – September 15, 1989) was an American poet, novelist, and literary critic and was one of the founders of New Criticism. He was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He founded the influential literary journal The Southern Review with Cleanth Brooks in 1935. He received the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for his novel All the King's Men (1946) and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1958 and 1979. He is the only person to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry.

One of my favorite poems of Warren’s is “Trying to Tell You Something”.  The poem discusses spirituality through the guise of an old oak tree trying to survive another winter.

             All things lean at you, and some are

             Trying to tell you something, though of some

             The heart is too full for speech.

“All things lean at you” This opening line intrigues me immediately, and I take it at its word.  “and some are Trying to tell you something,” adds to the sense of mystery. Now it has my attention. I am enveloped by the idea of this nebulous something that wants so desperately to put me on the path to Enlightenment, but just can’t, because “though of some The heart is too full for speech.”

The first three lines set the stage as the poem describes this massive tree, ‘ringed with iron’, rods and cables run through its core to keep it alive and upright through another season.  The oak wants to tell us something, it has wisdom to impart, if we just know how to understand what it is saying. The description of the tree, a freezing winter night when “It is ten below zero, and the iron Of hoops and reinforcement rods is continuing to contract” and the “stars crackle” place you on that cold and lonely hilltop.

Those poem has stuck with me for years, partially because of the opening lines, mostly because of the imagery and the feelings the poem evokes, and lastly, the end of the poem, because as often the case, with great opening lines, come great closing lines. Each image builds on the one previous, until the end seems almost inevitable.

                             You stand on a hill, in a world of whiteness, and

                             Stare into the crackling absoluteness of the sky. The oak

                             Wants to tell you because, at that moment,

                             In your own head, the cables will sing

                            With a thin-honed and disinfectant purity,

                           And no one can predict the consequences


So what are some of your favorite opening lines in poetry?



Unknown said...

"Constantly risking absurdity" from Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem of the same name. I've been thinking about it lately because we do risk absurdity as soon as we put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, or, for that matter, open our mouths and let word erupt. "...the poet like an acrobat / climbs on rime / to a high wire of his own making...."I used this poem as an example for a creative writing class I taught to at-risk youth quite a long time ago. I wanted them to take a risk. They were dubious, but they listened when I read Ferlinghetti's poetry aloud. Surely some of them chose to dance on the high wire. This is the poem I look at when I'm in doubt about whether to continue trying to spin stanzas that anyone else will want to read.
By the way, I cannot put this into a haiku. At least, not today.

Constance Brewer said...

Thanks for your thoughtful commentary, Kathleen. I like Ferlinghetti also, and probably should reread him for inspiration. So many excellent poets to read and reread, and draw insights from.

Taking risks with our self-expression is something we all need to practice - easier said than done, but intimately more satisfying. Kudos for pushing the kids out on the wire. Now for the rest of us to head out there voluntarily...