The First Line

What is the most important part of the poem? the title, the form, the rhyme scheme? The title certainly has to grab your attention, are we more likely to read a poem called  A Martian Send a postcard Home ( Craig Raine) or Summer Sun for example? (apologies to anyone who has written a poem titled this..)

Once you’ve been grabbed by the title, you then read the first line and this is where the hard work of the poet begins because the first line has to hook you into reading the rest of the poem. If you’re not hooked you won’t read on and if you’re submitting poems to busy editors, the title and the first line is maybe all they’ll read, so it has a lot of work to do to make you have to stand out from the crowd.

So what are some fantastic first lines?

Hope’ is the thing with feathers – Emily Dickinson

Shit are we lost?’ – Debora Lidov, The Drama of the Gifted Hansel.

Wench, yowm the colour of ower town:  – Liz Berry Birmingham Roller

Do not go gentle into that good night – Dylan Thomas

I took God with me to the sheep fair– Kerry Hardie, Sheep Fair Day

They’re all amazing in different ways, some jump straight into the action, some take you by the hand and lead you on, some express something in a way you’ve not thought of before and some set the tone or voice of the poem very firmly as in Liz Berry’s Black Country dialect.

Above all though, they press our curiosity button and make us want to read on.  

Go Graciously

It’s not the mistake you make, it’s how you deal with it that matters

This is a saying I used all the time at work and I found how people reacted to their mistakes was often a good judge of character. I preferred working with people who were open and honest; who, when they realised something had gone wrong, apologised for it and asked how they could do better in the future. rather than people who tried to deny or cover up their errors. It’s not easy when we’re embarrassed or ashamed but our reaction is a measure of who we are.

Recent events across the world involving people of power have shown their true character, even though we may have been pretty sure of it before. This is the poem that came out of events in recent weeks.

The photo? It’s a horse gag. Let us never be gagged.

The Measure of a Man

It’s not surrounding yourself with gimlet- eyed sycophants
reclining on cushions in your own private echo chamber,
it’s pulling out the barbs of critics from your skin,
however hard they sting and seeing their truth;
that is a measure of your humility.

It’s not indulging in the gluttony of the feast
grabbing the tastiest titbits of wealth and supremacy,
it’s in the modesty of taking only what you need
and giving the rest to those without hope or privilege;
that is a measure of your morality.

It’s not the self-delusion of seeing the world
through the eyes of your own class or colour,
it’s having the courage to walk unfamiliar streets
and greeting those you meet openly and with enquiry;
that is a measure of your understanding.

It’s not how you accept the responsibility of power
put on it dazzling crown, wield its weighty sceptre,
it’s how you step down from the throne and pass on
those enticing burdens to waiting hands;
that is a measure of your grace.

Do not go ungraciously
history will remember you for it.

Breaking the Line

photo-1524801155596-a02266e670ba
What makes a poem a poem? So many things that books have been written in answer to to the question! What is interesting me at the moment is the use of white space on the page. As Glyn Maxwell famously wrote in On Poetry ‘Poets work with two materials, one’s black, one’s white’ and it’s the interaction of the two that not only frames a poem but allows it to breathe. Even more than that, the white space has been likened to a musical score, giving instructions to the eye on how to read and the ear on how to receive.
Line breaks are an integral part of these instructions, the emphasis they bring to the word at the end of the line or the word at the beginning of the next is central to the construction and interpretation of a poem.
Holly Pester used a great example in her article in Poetry News Vol 109:2 Looking at ‘The other plum poem’ by William Carlos Williams

To a Poor Old Woman

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

In four short lines, moving the line breaks has created a pattern of different meanings and emphasis and intensified the sensation within the poem. Wow, powerful things these line breaks!
Here’s one of mine, the title poem from the pamphlet and one where line breaks play a significant part in the reading and meaning of the poem.

The dogs that chase bicycle wheels

stare out of windows,
checking the boundaries

checking the boundaries.

They have territories to protect,

circling

from the backs of sofas

to front doors,

to kitchens,
whole worlds held in their flat eyes.

Postmen breach defences,
dropping offerings
to be bitten, ripped and pissed on.

Straining to a point always
just in front of their noses,
the click

clicking of bicycle wheels

tricking them into the frenzy of a chase
for the white scut of a rabbit.

Unceasingly they scout crowded horizons
for what is not there,

will never be there.