OK – I wrote about poems’ endings. How about the beginnings? Can I find any lessons from my own opening lines?
I’ve reversed Eliot’s well-known line here, but his was deliberately contrary. All beginnings imply some kind of end and the characteristics of a beginning – whether it’s a poem, a revolution, a product launched or a child conceived, carry information which can determine how it will end.
DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN
One day the magician came to me and said,
The fish are leaping in the yellow stream
The oak has turned into an acorn small
And I saw Death in dream.
And I saw Death in dream, he said,
And Death was very kind
He showed me where the roses grow
Though I’m old and blind.
I’m old and blind and lame, he said,
The sea is out of sight
The shell is empty on the shelf
Through the woken night.
The night is all around, he said,
It closes hour by hour
The voices make me fear, my friend,
Should a proud man cower?
But should a proud man cower, my friend,
I think perhaps he should
The wine is turning sour, my friend,
But the bread is good.
The bread of death is good, my friend,
The bread of life is fine
And now I’ve understood, my friend,
Will the starlight shine?
And will the starlight shine, my friend,
And will the starlight shine?
Now let us touch the vine, my friend,
And we will drink the wine.
How does this beginning work? Well, in fact you could say the beginning is actually the title, which tells you death will feature and suggests something rather archetypal. Then the first line is in ordinary language and chatty, quite misleading really for a poem that becomes ballad-like and rather distant from everyday speech. But that’s a way of as it were luring the reader in. Compare with a Hitchcock thriller. It normally starts with things seeming ordinary.
Here are the shoes and here the photographs,
The shaven heads, expressionless eyes or defiant.
These are the notices: washroom, joy, be honest.
Joy was the brothel. Here the camp commandant’s children played,
Getting used to the occasional screams.
We are done now. Ten minutes’ rest break: the toilets are over there,
Hot drinks and snacks in that corner. The coach is ready.
Thankyou for listening, thankyou for coming here.
The people are quiet in the coach until a phone rings.
The old Jew answers it. “Yes, we’re fine. No, you’re joking.
It’s raining here, just like Manchester.”
Once you’ve realised this poem is about a concentration camp, the first line is very specific and plummets you right in. These are shoes piled up from people who were gassed. The title is ambiguous: is it about the visitors to the modern exhibition, to present-day Auschwitz, or does it describe the murdered people as visitors, perhaps because they didn’t stay long? The first line is straightforward and there is no twist from first line to second, just progression.
Here there is a twist though:
The world is disenchanted
We have walked in the dark places
And found no ghosts or elves
No dragons roam the forests
The real fearsome beasts
Of the forest we have shot
And made a diagram of their bodily systems.
But now the sabre-toothed beasts from the forest myths
The giant wings, the parallel cunning people
With their invisible cities and hidden spells
Are coursing through the streets of the flooded city.
Come with me to the sea.
We know the source of its power, waves and tides
There’s not a grain of sand disturbed
By the last thrash of the wave
I cannot analyse;
I can tell when a star will disappear.
Hunting elusive messengers in your mind
You may find useful this neat chart
We can identify
The electromagnetic impulses for love or hate
We’ve come a long way, you and I
Perhaps it is too late
To search back for some thing we have forgotten.
The title and the first line introduce the words DISENCHANTED and DISENCHANTMENT, which normally mean serious disappointment (“He became disenchanted with his leader,”), but immediately you wonder how the WORLD can be disenchanted. Gradually you realise the word is being used perversely if logically to be the opposite of ENCHANTED. We’ve lost enchantment.To me too the very sound of DISENCHANTED is right: it has a kind of mournful music.
I don’t mean this as self-praise – just picking out some openings I believe work quite well. Maybe I’ll do this for poems by better-known poets – but that’s harder work as I have my own poems all on one word file!