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lyrical poems

In many of the pieces I’ve turned in for a Creative Writing class, they’ve been returned with red ink underlining the first line, usually with comments like “This needs to have more impact” or “How does this draw in the reader?” Plus, there’s always one class period dedicated entirely to the crafting of the first line. Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m wondering if these first sentences are really the best ways to open this article.

The first lines of our poems can promise us interested audience or convince them our work is worth skipping over. From what I’ve learned from my studies so far, a good opening grabs a reader’s attention. I’ve also seen from my own reading that trying too hard to get their notice can make the lines feel forced and serve as a worse opening than something more generic.

This emphasis in my classes and the complexity of first lines I’ve experienced in my own writing led me to wonder what truly makes a great first line and what people’s favorite first lines are. I took to THEthe’s tumblr and twitter page to ask our followers.

Some of our responses were from our reader’s own poems:


Others responded with some published and famous works:


While I had read some of these poems before this gave me the opportunity to look up many of these poems. What I noticed was that many of these first lines left a strong visual image along with an emotional connection, most notably love or sadness. An image by itself in an opening can be memorable, as in one of our followers’ original poem, which compares cervical mucus to egg whites. This also gives a bit a mystery to beginning of the piece because although the bodily fluid obviously will relate somehow, the reader must read more to find out what’s going on in in the piece. It can sometimes be difficult to pull out extraordinary descriptions but simpler image may be more readily available. In this case, it may be more effective to juxtapose the image with a strong emotion that isn’t usually associated with that image. For example, one follower mentioned the opening to Louise Gluck’s “The Wild Iris.” While the image of a door is not all that exciting, and certainly not very memorable, when combined with the feeling of suffering the lines become a powerful combination that pulls the reader in. Sorrow isn’t typically a feeling one would think of alongside something as typical as a door, and by putting them together the poet creates interest.

Still there are other amazing poetic openings not mentioned by our followers, but still are worth examining. For instance, Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, begins with “Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.” While this line doesn’t meet either of the characteristics previously mentioned, it does give the reader (or in the case was for Homer’s audience: the listener) an immediate sense of what the following story is about. We learn that our main character is smart, strong, and a veteran of the famous battle of Troy. We also know that this story will be about his journey after the battle, and that it will be a long journey. Also, Milton’s Paradise Lost opens by telling the readers what they are about to experience. The first book opens with “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe.” It is becomes obvious to the reader within these first few lines that the tale will be about Adam and Eve and their infamous story of the origin of sin. Neither of these poems open with bold imagery or obvious emotional connections, but they are still regarded as iconic and beautiful first lines. There is something in the simplicity of these lines, along with those of other epic poems, which are inviting to a reader. These lines seduce the reader with the promise of an adventure or tale, which the reader then gets to experience vicariously through the poet and the characters in the poem. There is also this hint of a narrative in the lyrical first lines. It may not be as direct as epic poems, but it is there in an unusual image, or evocative phrase. Look again at the Louise Gluck’s line. Both the suffering and the door promise a story of some sort, one of an upsetting past and the other of a hopeful future.  However, there is a lack of immediacy in epic poems that is present in lyrical poetry.

This easily explained by the difference in lengths between these exceptionally longer epic poems and the shorter lyrical pieces. Epic poetry has many chapters, in some cases books, in which to ease the reader into a scene and topic of a story. Meanwhile, lyrical poems have less space available and must get to the essential parts of the scene immediately. Shorter works from the same time periods as Homer and Milton have similar first lines to modern lyrical poetry.

There is also a sense of intimacy in the openings of lyrical poetry that is lacking in the epic poems. Homer’s work addresses the muses in the first line, seemingly talking to a third party. The epic poem begins with holding the reader at a distance, although it invites them to read the story. Lyrical poetry is more personal and usually addresses a “you” or “we”, even in the first lines of the poems. These lines give the allusion that the poet is speaking directly to the reader.  Whoever the poem is about served as a sort of “muse” to the poet and that’s who they are truly addressing, but the language gives the sense that it can be about anyone, including the reader.

Thanks to all of our followers who responded!


I am reading Rosanna Warren’s book, Departures, and liking it a great deal, and, since I find her poems especially keen on using the entire spectrum of poetic concreteness between representational abstraction and non-representational abstraction. I’ll use her “Portrait: Marriage” as a grounding for what I am trying to get at here as we continue our discussion on concrete and abstract.

Prior to the modernist “revolution” (it was more of an evolution with certain revolutionary slants) poets used a rich and heavily Greek/Latin-influenced sense of occasion and rhetoric to formulate their poems. There were the small lyrics, and the very free madrigals and airs but even these were homages to the small lyrical poems of the Greeks and Romans. Here are some of the more common rhetorical devices.

1. Apostrophic address: speaking directly to the dead, to roses, to nation states, to states of feeling–more or less orating to that which was not likely to orate back.

Go lovely rose! (Waller)
Oh rose, thou art sick!” (Blake)
Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour (Wordsworth)
Death, be not proud… (Donne)

2. Pagan allusions, and often apostrophic address to various pagan deities, nymphs, dryads, etc, etc. This was a “conceit”–not a true worship of these gods (at least we are told so). Even devout Christians such as Milton freely wallowed in such allusions. In a sense, it gave the poet and the reader a short hand idea of what he or she should be feeling as well as mirroring the glory of Greek and Roman poetry and taking some of its reflected light.

3. Set forms such as Carpe Diem (seize the day), “when I am dead”poems, poems forbidding mourning, poems that pose the transience of human life against the “immortality”of the poet’s verse, the pastoral poetry in which sheep and herders, and flowers are all having a fine time, the blazon which itemizes the lover’s virtues, the anti-blazon that itemizes the lover’s faults, etc, etc. In addition to this there were the Odes, The Elegies, all modeled on Odes and elegies by Horace and Virigil, and so on and so forth.

Most of these poems used set themes (the brevity of youth, the inevitability of death) and then played splendid variations on the usual tropes. Two forms of poem used by the first generation Romantics gave us an evolution away from public sentiment–or public sensibility played out as private anguish–and introduced what might be deemed “real” anguish: the meditative lyric as devised by Coleridge in such poems as “Frost At Midnight” and Wordsworth’s Odes, and the small introspective lyrics (or anecdotal narrative) as exemplified by Wordsworth’s “Lucy Poems.” Coleridge grew bored with the meditative lyric and started writing his more fantastical poems which, via Poe’s love of the abnormal and the macabre, influenced French poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, the symbolists, and, then, of course, the first generation modernists who were reacting against another branch of Romanticism as exemplified by Tennyson and his followers.

In a sense the modernist got their own tradition brought back to them via the French, and the fantastical elements of this tradition–the love of the primal, the violent, the abnormal–is, in its mode as a derangement of the senses, part of the later surrealist, dadaist, cubust branch of modern poetics: heavy on odd and disjointed images, devoid of rhetoric, and forever searching for some sense of language that appeals through the intuition and the senses rather than through rational thought and feeling. If we take the exotic elements out of this equation, and replace them with camp, pop art, and comic routines, we arrive at much of what I call that poetry which leans towards the non-representational abstract: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, New York school, and all their various offshoots.

If we follow the Wordsworthian path of simplicity, conversational sincerity, and candor, and yoke it to the heavy influence of Japanese and Chinese poems on the imagists (they loved such poems because they seemed cleansed of rhetoric) we get the sort of lucid, feeling based, thought based, ontology driven representational abstraction that one finds in the poems of normative free verse writers–those who build a poem by allowing the sensual details, and incidents to imply a greater meaning or ontology.

There are few “pure strains” of these branches. Poets often take a little from each, and, poem for poem, might lead their concrete details toward the representational or non-representational ends of abstraction. Some poets disguised as surrealists are highly emotive (Neruda, Vallejo). Others who wouldn’t spit on an image even approachig surrealism, are highly detached. What I am saying here is that the concreteness of contemporary poetry relies far more on subjective, supposedly “original” form and imagery, and far less on agreed upon themes and tropes. The rhetorical devices still exist and show up in contemporary poems, but they are more about an inner process removed from a public voice, and tend to brood, to meditate, to narrate an event, the lesson or meaning of which is implied rather than overtly stated. So let’s see what Rosanna Warren does here in Portrait: Marriage:

Through the dark feathering of Spruce boughs and crosshatch
of naked lower branches, through
splatters of beechlight and beyond the shuddered patch
of sky trapped in the pond’s net of depth and shade,
you flicker into view then subside,

into mingled inks and umbers, like the paper birch
reflected: shaft of brilliance probing
the pond’s amnesia: whole: fractured at a touch:
that’s how I’ve seen you over the years,
light robing, and disrobing,
an image upon shaken waters:

That’s how I’ve held you, as one embraces and loses
the muscled slide of water in mid-
stroke, cold, hauling forward to new darkness as
it passes.

That’s all one compound, complex sentence, held together by colons, and semi colons. The voice of the poem seems to be claiming that even though this is her spouse, he remains, in some vital way, elusive, in and out–like the flickering, and filigree, and dapple and light of the garden, and of the pond. Warren is considered somewhat of neo-formalist, and the chore she has set for herself here is to get a great deal of supporting concrete images into two remarkably constructed sentences. The next sentence begins an evolution away from the first, as would happen at the volta (turn ) of a sonnet. I think she owes something to Williams’ “Spring and All.” The ending of the first sentence reflects a ghost of that older and more famous poem with its use of the word “cold” (but I digress). Suffice it to say, in this poem, Warren exemplifies the strategy of the contemporary concrete toward representational abstraction; she uses images to imply a meaning: even a spouse, bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh, remains a mystery, and contingent, and provisional–an only now of leaf loam, a contingent and provisional reality within the abstract “fixed” form of marriage.

We might abstract her poem as “Even a husband of many years, even the most intimate of relationships, is a provisional reality, and depends on moment by moment attention to detail.”

We might try poetic abstraction and get clever and put it all into a neat couplet:

Like holding water is my hold on you:
my husband, ever changing, ever true.

Or we might go for a haiku sort of thing:

Through the branches of a garden,
suddenly, my husband of thirty years:
this utterly strange creature, of light of shade.

So I think we have a ball park idea of the complex spectrum of concrete imagery towards either representational or non-representational abstraction. We are always towards an abstraction, one way or the other, but the use of detail, how we emphasize or mute, or play with an image is at the heart of contemporary poetics. A beginner must learn that contemporary poetry–no matter what the school–does not directly state its maxims, and when it does, it does so with a great deal more supporting evidence since nothing can be agreed upon. We do not share the same frames of reference, and we have spent a hundred years raising subjective consciousness to a sort of God. At the same time, we have the cult of science with its own rhetoric of empirical and “objective” fact pitted against the old rhetoric of proverbial and idiomatic thought and feeling. Both our sense of the objective and subjective have changed, and the borders between them are as elusive, as provisional as Rosanna Warren’s spouse.

A poem can be utterly concrete in all its details, yet abstract as to its meaning. This abstraction has better words to define it: vague, illusive, non-cognitive, gibberish, wide open to interpretation, etc. I’m sorry they used the word abstract to name such a poem, since, elsewhere, abstraction means to deal with the principle of the thing rather than the thing. Example: “man is prone to evil” rather than “Freddy is prone to evil.”

Here’s an example of a form called an “abstract” poem. Personally, I’d prefer “non-representational poem” to the extent that the poem is made out of words which may not refer to any idea, emotion, or agreed upon meaning outside the sequence of words. This is by Roy Campbell, supposedly the foremost practitioner of the “abstract poem”:

Of seven hues in white elision,
the radii of your silver gyre,
are the seven swords of vision
that spoked the prophet’s flaming tyre;

We have seven hues, a silver gyre, seven swords of vision, and a prophet’s flaming tyre. Beats me as to what Campbell means, but almost all lyrical poems contain such moments of high gibberish:

The mustard scansion of the eyes (Hart Crane)

This might be called ecstatic speech except that many language poets keep the totality of abstraction, and skip the lyricism:

With Eye Brows Thick As Tacitus
Lars Olson

We dined on sacrifage. Remember the trouncing sun?
and how Melissa’s cape flew off towards infamy?
Wasn’t that nice? The live long day wore
wretched and vociferous gloves
while that distended cousin of Gwen had to
find another ruse for frolicking about
doffing her Pavlovian grin.
Let’s face it, the dance cards of longing
are marked for death, but semblances
of scalloped bawds still pock the surly afternoon
and bring us news of kith and kin
with eye brows thick as Tacitus.

This passage is not exactly abstract. It sounds like the ghost of someone recalling some odd get together. We could paraphrase the poem (at least this section) as a memory poem, but, again, just barely. In a sense, it is borrowing “remember when” and making it odd. The gist of the poem is not regularly forthcoming. The language may be informal, even chatty (“Wasn’t that nice?”) but its effect is abstracted in the sense of not being representational of any standard meaning or expectation. This is the sort of abstraction that language poetry and surrealism often employs. It is one of the tricks in the bag of postmodernism. It is a different order of abstraction than what we commonly mean. So let’s break abstraction down.

Abstraction of meaning, running from high gibberish to a sort of dadaist literalism that makes the meaning absurd or, at the least, makes meaning highly provisional. It is the chief operating device of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, of certain New York school techniques, and of what might be deemed a sort of emotionally detached surrealism. It often comes with many and usually random concrete images. It is often comical, having, at its best, the great childish virtues of Magritte’s paintings. It is a good defense against paraphrase, maudlin sentiment, or commitment to anything overt. It often sounds highly precocious if not intelligent. It does not hedge its bets. It makes no bets. It is all hedges. Here’s the problem: if the person wielding the technique does not understand vamps, and tropes, and little tricks of distorting cliché, then it might all dissolve into a sort of verbal vomit.

Now for the more common idea of abstraction: expressing a principle or idea without being specific in terms of sensual details, or in which the sensual details serve the merely utilitarian purpose of embodying a principle.

Abstract: Man is a moral creature. And sin makes man less than man.

The poetic abstract (using a vivid or concrete image in the service of an idea): Man is an oak, and sin an axe.

Narrative concrete: Jim was a good guy, always did whatever he could to help you out, but then that bitch, Tara came along and ruined him. Now he’s a bum. Just goes to show you how one bad mistake can ruin your life.

Proverbial version of the poetic abstract: “By Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

Abstraction in poetry before the modernists:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
Man never is, but always to be, blest. (Pope)

Hope is a thing with feathers (Dickinson)

In either case, concrete sensual detail is there, but barely. We have the human breast, but it is figurative, rather than concrete or specific. We have hope defined by an extended metaphor and embodiment as a bird–but barely. This is poetry as wisdom: its images, though often beautiful, are always at the service of a principle, a truth, and very often, a sort of maxim. You might call this representational abstraction, and the first abstraction we mentioned non-representational abstraction. The concrete is really never absolutely there. The abstract, if it be truly abstract, isn’t there at all. You can’t “see” a season. You can look out a window, see the snow, feel the cold wind, and conclude it is “winter” but “winter” is a general principle embodied in snow and cold wind. You can also abstract by going too far into details without context. If you describe a daisy by painstakingly denoting all its parts–I mean, in every seen-detail–and you do not extend that detailing to an overall picture, chances are the reader won’t know you are talking about a daisy: detail without context is abstract. Context is the necessary abstraction of recognizing the details of a daisy as a daisy. Thus, against all the prevailing wisdom and preference of teachers, I would not tell beginning writers to avoid abstraction. I would tell them to play with the concrete towards representational abstraction or non-representational abstraction. In effect, either toward an “ontology” (the being /meaning implied by the details) or away from that ontology (if it is too pat, too obvious–for example: a grey sky equals sadness). Beginners must learn to employ the full spectrum of concrete details towards representational or non-representational abstraction. Painters know this.

We need two posts to cover this business of the concrete and the abstract. For now, here’s your homework: Read Dylan Thomas’ famous poem in which he admonishes his father to “Not go Gentle into that good night.” In what ways does this poem use details to bring home its abstraction? After reading this, read William Carlos Williams’ “The Last Words of My English grandmother.” Both poems are about dying elderly people. In a sense, Williams’ poem is far less poetic in its diction and imagery, but the grandmother, even though she is dying, comes off as a wonderful old coot and lively woman, whereas we know nothing of Dylan’s father at the end. Read these poems, then look at one of yours and see if you lean more towards one or the other. If you lean more towards the Dylan Thomas, re-write the poem to go more toward the Williams, and vice versa. Good luck.