Poetry: Where Opening Lines Speak Volumes

Grab ’em by the lapels, they say in poetry. First impressions are everything. This negative-zero morning in January, I decided to put it to the test by reading first “sentences” of poems to see if they do, indeed, wow the reader. Randomly pulling a book from the poetry section of my library shelves, I found a copy of Thomas Tranströmer poems translated by Patty Crane. Let’s have a look and pick a favorite, shall we?

  • “The stones we have thrown I hear / fall, glass-clear through the year.” (“The Stones”)
  • “Daylight touched the face of a man who slept.” (“Secrets on the Way”)
  • “Two o’clock at night: moonlight.” (“Tracks”)
  • “Sometimes my life opened its eyes in the dark.” (“Kyrie”)
  • “The black grand piano, the gleaming spider / stood trembling in the midst of its music-net.” (“Balakirev’s Dream”)
  • “There’s a tree walking around in the rain, / hurrying past us in the pouring gray.” (“The Tree and the Sky”)
  • “In February existence stood still.” (“Face to Face”)
  • “He laid down his pen.” (“Lament”)
  • “I play Haydn after a black day / and feel a simple warmth in my hands.” (“Allegro”)
  • “Depression breaks off its course.” (“The Half-Finished Heaven”)
  • “The storm put its mouth to the house / and blows to get a tone.” (“A Winter Night”)
  • “I feel asleep in my bed / and woke up under the keel.” (“Winter’s Formulas”)
  •  “The blue sky’s engine-drone is loud.” (“Under Pressure”)
  • “Rushing rushing water’s rumbling old hypnosis.” (“From the Snowmelt of ’66”)
  • “The tugboat is freckled with rust.” (“Sketch in October”)
  • “On the main approach to the city / as the sun sinks low.” (“Further In”)
  • “Apple trees and cherry trees in bloom help this city float / in the sweet dirty May night, white life vest, my thoughts widen out.” (“Late May”)
  • “It was before the time of radio towers.” (“Baltics”)
  • “An icy wind in my eyes and the suns dance / inside a kaleidoscope of tears as I cross / the street I’ve followed for so long, the street / where Greenland’s summer shines up from the puddles.” (“The Crossing Place”)
  • “I spent the night at a motel by E3.” (“The Gallery”)
  • “The organ stops playing and it’s dead-quiet in the church, but just for a couple of seconds.” (“Brief Pause in the Organ Recital”)
  • “Tired of all who come with words, words but no language, / I headed for the snow-covered island.” (“From the March of ’79”)
  • “A June morning when it’s too early / to wake but too late to fall back asleep.” (“Memories Watch Me”)
  • “I lean like a ladder and reach / with my face in to the cherry tree’s first floor.” (“Winter’s Glance”)
  • “A train has rolled in.” (“The Station”)
  • “During the dismal months, I sparked to life only when I made love to you.” (“Fire Scribbles”)
  • “We have many shadows.” (“The Forgotten Captain”)
  • “In the black hotel a child sleeps. (“Six Winters”)
  • “In the green midnight by the nightingale’s northern limit.” (“The Nightingale in Badelunda”)
  • “The forest in May.” (“Alcaic”)
  • “I am a mummy who rests in the forest’s blue coffin, in the incessant roar of motor and / rubber and asphalt.” (“Lullaby”)
  • “The white butterfly in the park is being read by many.” (“Streets in Shanghai”)
  • “I a dark hull floating between two floodgates / rest in bed at the hotel while the surrounding city wakes.” (“Deep in Europe”)
  • “The silent rage scribbles on the inward wall.” (“Leaflet”)
  • “It’s spring 1827.” (“The Indoors Is Infinite”)
  • “Capitalism’s buildings, hives of the killer bees, honey for the few.” (“Epigram”)
  • “Her voice is smothered by the dress.” (“Portrait of a Woman, 19th Century”)
  • “Beneath our enchanting facial expressions / the skull always waits, poker-face.” (“Medieval Motif”)
  • “On a hunt for a mailbox / I carried the letter through town.” (“Air Mail”)
  • “I inherited a dark forest where I seldom walk.” (“Madrigal”)
  • “The slow-worm that leg-less lizard flows along the entryway stairs / calm and majestic as an anaconda, differing only in size.” (“Golden Vespid”)

That gives you an idea of how “golden rules” of poetry are often violated successfully (unless you’re willing to say all of these opening lines compel you to read on this minute or else you’ll hold  your breath and stamp your foot so help you God).

In fact, some of the openers are, indeed, cool, such as those for “The Stones,” “Winter’s Formulas,” “Late May,” “Baltics,” “The Crossing Place,” and “Winter’s Glance.” My favorite? The intriguingly simple opener to “The Forgotten Captain”: “We have many shadows.” Why? Because I’ve never thought of it, yet feel it’s true. Figurative shadows we don’t think about–until Tranströmer forces us to.

But then you have openers which are clearly setting the stage–simple openings for a narrative or for  a mood, like those in “The Station,” “Alcaic,” and “The Gallery.”

Note, too, that a series of opening lines from one poet begin to show his interests, quirks, methods, and techniques. Tranströmer, for instance, loves to use color in unusual ways. We have “pouring gray,” “green midnight,” “white butterfly,” and “blue coffin,” by way of example.

Whether it is a hook or not, I appreciate most how concise T-Squared is. He does not waste words. His muse is a strict task master. Simple and Swedish, he reaps, as the title of this book I pulled says in big blue letters, with a Bright Scythe.

And may all your Sunday be merry and bright, too….