We take this issue’s question for our writers from Mary Ruefle’s book, Madness, Rack, and Honey (“On Beginnings”):
“Paul Valery described his perception of first lines so vividly, and to my mind so accurately, that I have never forgotten it: the opening line . . . , he said, is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the (writer’s) task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall.”
We ask you to revisit your opening lines and reflect on your process of launching your work, and mull how it was you tried “to create the tree.”
Nicole Yurcaba: I approach first lines as being the first impression that people misjudge. Essentially, I strive for what not only appeals mentally, but also verbally. So, basically what “tastes good” as its rolling from the tongue when the poem’s being read. From there, I incorporate images, words, etc. others don’t necessarily see or hear, and most likely don’t understand, because part of my personal aesthetic is to dive into what’s dark, what’s misunderstood, what’s twisted, and emerge holding something that’s individualistic and beautiful, though to the outside observer whose gazing upon the “tree” or the “fruit” the image or subject might be twisted and fragmented or gorgeously imperfect.
Bill Buege: I wrote both of these a couple years ago; so I’m not sure I can remember exactly what prompted me. The way I usually write is to put down a title, then, start writing in long hand with the title in mind, enter what I have on my computer, and begin editing day after day, don’t stop until I think I have something decent or something not worth saving. The “Cuisine” poem is formal, of course, and close to light verse, but I think I’ve made it nasty enough (not difficult) to balance out the form. I think I had the title first, before the first line, then wrote a first line that I liked. Once I had the first line, I knew what I was going to do with the rest, and it came pretty easily. The first line’s source would be the several vegetarians in our family and how disgusting meat can sound when one starts thinking about its source. Regarding the “Tailor” poem, I’d guess I’d seen or read Le Carre’s novel The Tailor of Panama recently. In addition, I’ve always been interested in the thousand who come in second in any art vs. the one who really succeeds. I decided to transpose that kind of success ratio onto another subject, something close to art but not what we usually think of as art. After that, it was a matter of working out what I wanted the poem to be. One thing for sure, it is very different from the “Cuisine” poem.
D. E. Steward: “Oat straw color everywhere beneath and beyond for at least an hour.”
This is the phrase that opens “Freeway” and it is hard to think of an easier tree to imagine than from this fruit. A view mid–continent from thirty thousand feet takes you wherever you want it to. There was an extensive drought going on under this flight and so the “Oat straw color.” The trip was to California from the Atlantic Coast, one I’ve made back and forth and every which way many dozen times, and that each time has freed the imagination remarkably fluently. Stay in one place and end up writing about relationships and cats. Fly off with Hildegard von Bingen to the Powell Street cable car turnaround and anything can happen. As life is a beach, it can just as readily be a freeway.
Ron McFarland: Curious that Ruefle’s book would come up, as I dealt with it & others (books by poets about poetry) in the spring in the context of a directed study course (very smart MFA student). So yes, I will indeed visit my opening line or lines with an eye to Valery’s observation. Many years ago I interviewed James Dickey, and in that context we talked about the opening lines of a poem & agreed that if it didn’t get us in the first 3 or 4 lines, we felt no obligation to proceed. I’d been serving as poetry editor of a couple of literary magazines for several years by then.
Ayana Ali: Back from college for a few weeks, sitting in the back of a minivan in a state park after a strangely exhaustive daytrip to a local state park, my mother and aunt and grandmother discussed matters I did not think were of especial importance. I believe I may have had some sort of book, quite possibly of poetry, with me, but I am not sure. I listened to them dazed as if in a dream. Someone mentioned that some sort of lion–like creature had been sighted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This was a bolt of lightning.
I came up with the line “A lion is roaming the streets of Milwaukee” perhaps within a minute of its mentioning in the conversation, and the rest of the poem flowed very organically out of that foundation. It is the sort of poem that can be said to have written itself, which is to say, the senses of wonder and terror and strangeness that the ideas motivating the line were imbued with were sufficiently powerful to construct the poem with very little conscious effort on my part, or that is how it felt, anyway. I think I used syllabic alexandrines because I was contemplating French poetry at the time, yet syllabic verse has always been a very expressive form for me yielding good results.
I wrote the last stanza first, in perhaps five minutes, and I realized almost immediately that it would serve as a good ending for the poem, which I already felt needed to be much more extensive than merely that. We went to a manmade lake and watched people in bathing suits on a somewhat decrepit beach. We did not have bathing suits. We walked along a grass path along the shoreline leading away from the beach. Going back to the car, and seeing the beachers again, I wrote the first stanza (which is actually the second stanza, following the last stanza, as I have said) in maybe twenty minutes as I waited for everyone to come back to the car.
Now at this time the line, “A lion is roaming the streets of Milwaukee”, was only thought of by me as being the first line of every stanza. I read Dylan Thomas’s And Death Shall Have No Dominion perhaps the next day or perhaps in the car that same daytrip’s afternoon as I may have brought Collected Poems [by Dylan Thomas] with me, and this poem inspired me to start and end each stanza with the line. I was also inspired by the same poem to name my poem with the line.
The middle stanza was written last as a way to link the beginning and ending stanzas naturally—-the final sestet felt two abrupt as it was (as a wholly unrelated side note, it might be interesting to mention that the lion’s windmill eyes were inspired by and meant as a reference to Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale “The Tinderbox”, in which a dog with eyes as big as mill–wheels guards a room full of silver money and a dog with eyes as big as a tower guards a room with a chest full of gold). And I felt that the grandeur and heaviness of the poem’s image was not sufficiently emphasized in the first or last stanza. This middle stanza’s length of ten lines, eight of which were original, was mathematically derived—-the opening sonnet had twelve original lines and the final sestet four. The poem gains natural momentum by this simple mathematical pattern, and a nice soundness of structure, as after four there is nothing, so only the line remains, and the poem’s first “stanza” is the title, after all, and that is simply the line. Thus, the poem achieves a bit of the Finnegans Wake effect, if you will (and you will).
Each line in the poem is meant to stand by itself in the sense of giving the reader one idea or image to focus on, sometimes made up of several different ideas or images. This comes from my somewhat concentrated study of the works of Ezra Pound. It was not, for the most part, a conscious choice or objective for me, just an interesting subconscious decision to mention in passing. What enjambment exists is either false enjambment, achieved by ignoring commas that should proceed “&”s (they are not technically necessary, just strongly encouraged by grade–school grammarians), or crypto–enjambment, achieved by using prepositions like “with” and “in” and conjunctions like “as” and (of course) “&”.
I’m sorry if this has flowed on too thick or long, but once I get going, I’m the Yellow River during monsoon.
Doug Van Hooser: “the middle” grew from the opening image. The combination of the sound, “the muddle of the middle” and the image it expresses is the root that is the theme of the poem. The following images branch out and leaf from the opening image with the end of the second stanza prompting the next two stanzas. Then possibility enters as light through a frosted window. The tone of the poem changes to hope. And the last two stanzas act as a refrain of transformation as beauty blooms. Negating the opening “muddle.” No longer lost or unseen, optimism flowers.
Phillip Aijian: “Scarecrow Humor” was once the conclusion to a longer poem and motivated with little more than the ambition to inhabit some of the scenery suggested in Frost’s poem, “Directive,” which contains the line “A few old pecker–fretted apple trees.” I eventually realized that this was, of itself, a different poem. The process of editing felt like extreme pruning, where one good branch is saved at the expense of the diseased tree with the hope that the cutting itself can grow in better soil.
James Austin: “My mother likes to tell me why she’s famous.”
I wrote that line more than 15 years ago. The story “Little Mister Utah” was my first sustained creative activity following 9/11. Those were anxious weeks in the United States, even in Iowa, where I was living at the time. I wrote these lines, and this story, with a sense of relief and renewal, for I was finally able to bring myself back to writing, and to the intimacy of a short story. As with most stories I write, I needed to enter this world I’d begun to create with the correct trajectory. I needed to know just where to begin, and with what kind of voice. With this story, I had a sense of what it was about—-a pre–teen boy with a perhaps misplaced loyalty toward his mother. I felt like he needed to be right at the cusp of a more mature kind of understanding about his mother, something that would happen following the end of the story, which this story helps him move towards. With that in mind, I felt like the first line needed to entice, as always—-to make you want to read the next line—-but to give a sense of the narrator’s loyalties, where the story was headed, and what kind of voice the story would have. The story ultimately brings him to a moment with unintended consequences for him, and that first line is the first step in the journey that brings him to that moment at the story’s conclusion, and what I imagine happens after the story ends.
Todd Davis: Brian Doyle, whose poems and stories and prayers have moved me to laughter and tears, calls the power and beauty (and I’ll add terrifying force) that binds the universe together “the Coherent Mercy,” and I must confess I believe in that Coherent Mercy, despite the worst I’ve witnessed.
Brian received the diagnosis of a brain tumor recently, had surgery to reduce the tumor a couple days ago, and knows that he likely has a year, at best two, to live. His response? He asked for ginger snaps and prayers. He asked that people remember to laugh. He loves laughter.
I met my wife Shelly when I was twelve years old. She moved into our school district part way through seventh grade. I was smitten the moment I saw her long legs striding across the basketball court. I’m fifty–two now, and upon waking in the morning, when I look at her, I still feel like I’m twelve, noodle–armed and tingly–in–the–toes at the prospect of getting to kiss her.
So what do Brian and his idea of a Coherent Mercy and Shelly and our long–lived love have to do with each other and Paul Valery’s conviction that an opening line of a poem is like finding some unknown piece of fruit on the ground?
I begin this poem attempting to observe Shelly’s soul, postulating that a soul has a texture: “I imagine your soul is the texture of cantaloupe / as you bend over the tub to wash your hair.” And I suppose I do this because I’m always searching for, paying attention to the work of that Coherent Mercy, the ways it connects and binds us to each other and the world.
I’m also aware as we age that our bodies and faces do not hold up to their once youthful beauty, yet I find Shelly more beautiful now than when we were young. (And I was crazy about her beauty when we were first married at the age of 23!)
Of course that beauty, that soul I imagined, is comprised of every minute of life lived up to that point, and thus the tree the poem sprouts from must include her childhood collecting toy horses, and her father who struggled with alcoholism, and later her relationship with our cat, and the warblers that migrate through each year, and the flooding rains, too.
The poem concludes, thanks to Shelly’s wisdom as an instrument of the Coherent Mercy, with the sweetness of watermelon, pink and full of sugar.
Fred Wilbur: Two notions came together in “Last Speakers.” The fact that native languages are dying out with the death of the last speaker and the idea that when one’s father (or mother) dies his unique word usage, phrases, accent, tone, inflexion, etc. also die. The first line originally was “Every father’s death is mean and meaning given to it” and from this the poem grew, but in revising the work, I wanted an active image to begin an exploration of the father–son relationship. Throughout I wanted to balance the personal with the universal. I often delay stating the exact situation of a poem, though in this case it should be clear from the title or the dedication. The ambivalent feeling of the persona to his father’s memory is supported in the second stanza, but the third is more reminiscent. The last stanza brings the persona around to an intimate and positive relationship.
Marc Harshman: First lines for me are like following a trail I have created myself. I throw out a few bread crumbs, words, sometimes blindly, and then I follow along as if I had not thrown them at all, but rather that someone else had. It’s often clear I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I persist in hoping it will be somewhere someone else may wish to follow. As more crumbs are tossed, as more words accumulate, some in place of the originals, and some which will now be behind me, as well as others in front of me, I persist with a hopeful searching that all may become part of a trail of words that will sing, as well as resonate as they sing, with something true. And so, on a good day, they may begin, eventually, to coalesce into the magic that makes good poetry.
Randall R. Freisinger: Generative Metaphor As Fallen Fruit
Opening lines for me, alas, are rarely given, but rather arrived at during drafting. But the Valery anecdote reminds me of a story a carpenter friend once told to me. He was planning to build a spice cabinet and had been in a building supplies store sifting through sale bins of odds and ends when he found a cabinet hinge he had never seen before. He studied it, then said to himself: “Now all I have to do is to create a cabinet that goes with this hinge.” His story mirrors my own experience of how my poems are most frequently launched.
And for me, a poem almost always originates in metaphor. Certain images, memories, or arresting facts seem charged with metaphoric resonance, and I sense the possibility of a poem. When textbooks talk about poems and metaphor, they most often refer to what I call “localized” metaphor. I. A. Richards famously claimed metaphor consists of a tenor (the subject to be described) and a vehicle (the object and its attributes used to describe that subject). T. S. Eliot opens “Prufrock” with the arresting comparison of an urban evening (tenor) “spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table” (vehicle). Although that metaphor does, in fact, prepare readers for larger thematic content in the poem, it functions mainly on a localized, individual level. In localized metaphor, the movement of mind for both writer and reader is from known tenor to discovered vehicle. The creation (or reception) of vivid metaphors is one of poetry’s greatest pleasures.
But metaphoric perception can also be generative. Then, for me (and I suspect most other writers), the process is reversed. Now, I begin with the vehicle—-a fragment of memory perhaps—-and my mind moves from known vehicle toward a tenor yet to be discovered. Here, metaphoric perception initiates the making of a poem. I have to work from what I know—-what Richard Hugo called the “triggering town”—-to what I don’t as yet know, i.e., what the poem is about and how both it and I will proceed toward that discovery. In the case of “Daisy” and “First Dibs,” each began with a “charged” personal experience—-the barbarous treatment of my grandmother in a nursing home as she lay dying; or my unexpected falling heir to the wife and children of my best friend when he died suddenly at the age of 37. Both experiences for me were like Valery’s strange piece of fruit or my carpenter friend’s unique cabinet hinge. Each served as a vehicle. My job was to figure out, through a series of drafts, where each vehicle wanted to take me. Such writing is always highly exploratory, proceeding by fits and starts, trial and error, until I’ve arrived at a poem which, if not fully finished, is at least, as Valery elsewhere observed, ready to be abandoned.
Cinda Redfield: As a reader, and so as a writer, I am tempted by a first line that intimates some knowledge of the world, like the Original fruit. And I need to feel how within that first utterance lies coiled an eventuality, the story structure that wants to emerge. If I don’t feel that energy (sometimes but not always a tension) my first line isn’t working.
Ruefle’s borrowed simile also captures how story structure doesn’t just emerge naturally. I recently traveled through a terrain of vineyards and orchards, each variety pruned and trained to an ideal form. In the same way I am awed by Babel’s old vine sentences, so lushly productive, and I operate on the belief that for every story there exists an ideal form. I only need to be patient enough to discover it.
Then, if I’ve done my work right, the developed story yields that first sentence (often a more tempting specimen replacing the one that, however flawed, got things started). This circularity is in the story’s DNA, most palpably expressed in the old tales, where we live happily ever after until the same thing happens again. In “I Have Always Been Beautiful,” the first line, with its tone of fairy tale imperative, was chosen because I wanted to borrow energy from fairy tale and allegory. For me, revisiting those ancestral forms (breeding back into species stock) can invigorate the modern story, as long as it is done with an eye to our taste for singularity.
Ben Gunsberg: The opening stanza of “Prodigal Self” arrived as a lucky burst one morning. I was summoned back to my early 20s, New Jersey, teaching seventh grade math during the week and carousing in New York City during the weekend. The tension between my Apollonian and Dionysian impulses energized the poem’s development and eventually branched toward the famous parable. Though satisfied with the piece overall, I’m not convinced I ever match or exceed the energy of those first five lines. Call it the curse of a good beginning.
Jeff Tucker: The “tree” in my poem is an actual tree—-an orange tree that my uncle gave me for my birthday. (He was fond of gifts with an agricultural bent; once, he gave me an antique garden hose nozzle, wrapped in an old washcloth, claiming it came from a fire hose.) The peach tree died the year before, having never been more than a bush; perhaps he was doubling down. I was only a child.
Mentioning my tree’s thorns in the first lines of the poem, I hope, evokes the surprise and frustration I felt pruning my tree—-no one else would touch it—-and being stabbed in the back. (Years, later, I’d find that the thorns’ punctures had created a cyst in my back that needed digging out, much like the pottery in the poem.) That frustration, coupled with my failed mosaic in the garden soil, represents for me the dual nature of creation, its frustration and joy. My tree gave great fruit; it made me bleed. My art (poetry, now, having given up mosaics) thrills me; it also keeps me awake, resurrects unpleasant memories, and forces me—-forces me—-to write.
Hopefully, by putting frustration first, the rest of the poem followed suit.
Kathleen Kraft: “Note on the End of the World” was directly influenced by reading “Accepting the Disaster” by Joshua Mehigan. The rhythms and the subject matter of the book (lots of doom with fun, wry humor in between) stayed with me, and somehow the first few lines of my poem arose. I suppose I’ve always been interested in gloomy fairy tales, so it was a relief to finally write a little one.
“I Go to a Shala” was inspired by finding myself in transit to yoga studios quite frequently. One Valentine’s Day not too long ago, I trudged out in the snow to try a new one. It happened to be in an old building in New York City with a lot of feeling in the walls, you could say. And thus my poem was born as I stood on one leg soaking up the darkening afternoon.