As Wallace Stevens Once Put It: Hi!
Poker players have an expression for that moment when you look at your cards and discover you’ve been dealt the luckiest possible hand. It’s called “waking up with aces.” This reminds me of the way that the first lines of poems seem to come out of nowhere. It’s true for the poet, the lines just arriving, as if by dictation or angelic message — as Eliot writes in his essay on Blake, “The idea, of course, simply comes.” And it’s true for the reader, who can only have the same in medias res experience, encountering a line at the top of a page. There’s a shock to this unveiling. All the emails I get begin with some variation on “I hope this finds you well,” but a poem can begin in any kind of way. “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness.” There’s a Wallace Stevens poem that starts “Hi!”
“In the middle of our life’s journey,/I found myself in a dark wood.” That’s the most literal translation of the first two lines of Dante’s “Inferno.” But some translators have chosen to render the verb ritrovare as waking, as in Dorothy Sayers’s 1949 version: “Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,/I woke to find myself in a dark wood.” Or Warwick Chipman’s 1961 version: “Midway along the span of our life’s road/I woke to a dark wood unfathomable.” The construction “I found myself” is so common now we can barely hear the meaning. Waking suggests a true break with the past, with our sense of continuity. To wake is to begin to exist.
The beginning of a work is a kind of Big Bang. All the energy is there — the rest of history is there, insofar as the universe of the poem is concerned — it just has to play out in time. I often have the sense that the beginning holds all the information of the project. If I can start, I can finish; the next move will become clear, but only once I’ve made the first move. In this way the poem is a miniature determinist universe, but one (like ours) so chaotic as to be unpredictable, even to the writer. But poems can also start more than once. As Jean Valentine writes, in her poem “Cousin,” “Once or twice, someone comes along/and you stand up in the air/and the air rises up out of the air.” The poem begets more poem, a bubble universe.
Take the beginning after the beginning of Safia Elhillo’s “Infibulation Study”:
After beginning with an intention to begin — an intention that constitutes the actual beginning — the poem has a second beginning, a sentence that intriguingly undercuts its beginning-ness by starting with a lowercase letter, like a voice lowered in shame. There are also poems within poems (the song in “Much Ado About Nothing”: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more”) and poems that abandon their opening gambits and try new strategies. There are poems with refrains that feel like resets, an urge to start over — such as Nicanor Parra’s “The Individual’s Soliloquy,” whose first line, “I’m the individual” (as translated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg), repeats throughout a sort of potted history of humanity:
Alex Dimitrov’s “You Were Blond Once” has a similar refrain, amended each time: “I have a photograph …” becomes “I have a photograph of you …” and finally “I have a photograph of you from that day …” This third is the poem’s last line — the beginning embedded, extended, in the ending.
The screen that displays in karaoke bars before a song begins always tells you the title, the artist and the key: “LET’S GO CRAZY,” PRINCE, KEY OF B, for example. The first lines establish the key of the poem, in a way. The first poems in books do the same, revealing something of the poet’s voice and thematic and formal concerns. The first poem in Ada Limón’s “The Hurting Kind” ends with the sentence “She is a funny creature and earnest,/and she is doing what she can to survive.” It’s a description of a groundhog in the garden, but given its placement, we can assume it’s part self-portrait too. (“Why am I not allowed/delight?” the speaker asks.) In the first poem in “Bluest Nude,” Ama Codjoe writes, “I was obsessed with making,” and “My blue/was a habit.” She doesn’t mention poetry or writing, yet I can’t help reading it as a meta-poem. First poems are almost forced into this role of ars poetica, this Genesis work of explaining how a book comes from nothing.
Truly great first lines are rare — we don’t often get an “All the new thinking is about loss.” A “Sundays too my father got up early.” A “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” (The rest of this Robert Herrick poem, except for the title, is forgettable.) They are rare because unnecessary. Most readers will give you a few lines. Of course I love to be astonished, but I also love when a poem suddenly gets really good around Line 3 or 4, just when I was about to stop reading. Raymond Carver’s poem “My Boat” begins in a flat, prosaic manner: “My boat is being made to order. Right now it’s about to leave/The hands of its builders. I’ve reserved a special place/for it down at the marina.” So what, right?
But this is a fantasy boat — utopia boat. He goes on: “It’s going to have plenty of room/on it for all my friends: Richard, Bill, Chuck, Toby, Jim, Hayden,/Gary, George, Harold, Don, Dick, Scott, Geoffrey, Jack,/Paul, Jay, Morris, and Alfredo. All my friends! They know who they are.” A poem has to give in to impulse, even a silly impulse, this long list of names: “Tess, of course. I wouldn’t go anyplace without her./And Kristina, Merry, Catherine, Diane, Sally, Annick, Pat, Judith, Susie, Lynne, Annie Jane, Mona.” Then come lists of the comforts and delights this heavenly boat will hold, stories and music, “paints and canvases,” delicious foods: “Every good thing that my friends like and I like./And a big basket of fruit, in case anyone wants fruit./In case anyone wants to say he or she ate an apple,/or some grapes, on my boat.”
As you read on, you know, to make the poem (poesis: to make) is to make the boat.
Elisa Gabbert is the author of six collections of poetry, essays and criticism, most recently “Normal Distance.” Her On Poetry columns appear four times a year.