A more advanced exercise about beginnings. This is for writers who already have a reasonable level of confidence, needing only the smallest of prompts to get them writing.
Prep and resources
There are some poems that clearly invite both writer and reader into a personal narrative; others offer a statement to be explored, or a question to be answered; some take the writer very specifically into another person’s voice or experience; and often the very simplest of lines can lead to the most startling new poems.
- “Let us go then, you and I” (TS Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’)
- “Criminal, you took a great piece of my life” (Rosemary Tonks, ‘Badly-chosen Lover’)
- “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you” (Claudia Rankine, ‘Citizen [Part 4]’)
- “What happens to a dream deferred?” (Langston Hughes, ‘Harlem’)
- “I was nearly killed here, one night in February” (Tomas Tranströmer, ‘Solitude [I]’)
- “Dusk, deserted road, and suddenly I was a goat” (Jo Shapcott, ‘Goat’)
- “We left before I had time” (Julia Copus, ‘The Back Seat of My Mother’s Car’)
Using another writer’s first line as the starting point for a new poem is a well-established convention in the poetry world.
Make a list of around twenty of your favourite opening lines — ones that could feasibly go off in a range of different directions. (Preparing for this exercise is half the fun, sending you back to your bookshelf to rediscover poetry you love!)
Exercise: First Lines
This exercise might usefully be preceded by a general discussion about how poems start i.e. the need to come in strongly (in contrast to stepping-off lightly at the end), to grab the reader’s attention by bringing them right into the action of the poem, without unnecessary preamble.
Recite to the group your list of opening lines. Encourage students to pay attention to which line seizes their attention most strongly.
Once students have chosen their favourite opening line from your list, ask them to write a new poem, following on from that opening line. Reassure them, they have total freedom to go wherever they wish with the next line.
Feedback: explore how your students’ poems differ from the original works from which they borrowed their first line. Has anyone improved upon the original?! If more than one student used the same first line, how did their two pieces differ?
Remember to stress to students that, when borrowing another poet’s lines, proper author acknowledgement must be given by adding an epigraph below the title i.e. ‘With a first line by X‘.
This exercise kindly provided by First Story writer Alan Buckley.