A First Line Challenge

How important is a poem’s first line to you as a reader, especially in a poem by a poet whom you might never have read before — nor even heard of?

Here are five first lines in poems published in the May 2016 issue of Poetry. After reading them, which poem would you read first? Last? What makes you want to read more?
Share your responses by replying to this post.

1. “Never were knuckle men.”    → “Axe Derby” by Bonnie Cassidy

2. “Ripeness was a semitone below”    → “Magnifera” by Jaya Savige

3. “I have known these estuaries —”    → “Thalassography” by Sarah Holland-Batt

4. “Focus on the taxidermied light,”    → “Forget the Stars” by Fiona Hile

5.  “Rock quartz next to a fence with upturned faces.” → “In a Dark Room” by Cassie Lewis

Thoughts on “King of the River” – Part 3

This post continues my discussion/analysis in the previous two posts about line breaks in Stanley Kunitz’s poem, “King of the River“.

Stanza 4 contains only one fewer line than the first three stanzas combined and continues the first two stanzas habit of having unpunctuated lines end in a grammatical unit, such as a phrase, the grammatical unit serving as a substitute for punctuation. The pause in such cases is less than that of either a comma or period. If a period’s pause is like a stop at a red light and a comma’s pause is like the hesitation at a yield sign, the grammatical unit’s unpunctuated pause is like approaching an intersection with neither a light nor a traffic sign, one where the absence of either is part of the warning.

For the fourth stanza’s first sentence (nine lines), Kunitz replicates the end-stopping ways used in the first two stanzas, but then, as he does in Stanza 3, he deviates — noticeably, ending Stanza 4’s next four lines with periods, following that with an unpunctuated line (“The great clock of your life”) — its prepositional phrase (“of your life”) serving as its “pause” notice, a comma-ended line, and then two more lines, one ending with a period.

If you read that stanza aloud, the effect of the punctation shift in the eight lines after its first sentence should be obvious. It is like a teacher rambling along in a lecture laced with long sentences who, suddenly, unexpectedly, hits those listening with short ones. At a minimum, it should awaken those whose minds were drifting elsewhere.

Then, in the final eight lines of Stanza 4, Kunitz varies his approach, his sentence length mixing punctuation with grammatical unit pauses, and adding new punctuation marks, the colon (twice) — its pause even briefer than a grammatical unit’s, and an exclamation point — both an attention-getter and a line slower. Finally, he inserts quotation marks (twice), both end-quotation marks slowing the pace, especially the second quotation’s final mark that ends the stanza. Coupled with the white space after it and the message its last two lines carry (“The only music is time, / the only dance is love”), a reader may pause longer to reflect upon what was just read.

Thoughts on “King of the River” – Part 2

This post continues what is in the post “A Kunitz Poem with a Lesson on End-Stopping Built-In,” extending it by discussing the second stanza in Kunitz’s poem, focusing on end-stopping and enjambment. Interestingly, applying Hirsch’s definition of “end-stopped” (see previous post), every line in the second stanza is end-stopped, even the unpunctuated ones.

Line 1: It contains a subordinate clause (the whole line) and is end-punctuated.
Line 2: It contains a coordinate clause (the whole line) and is end-punctuated.
Line 3: It contains a prepositional phrase (“for the membrane”) and a verb phrase (“is clouded”); it is unpunctuated.
Line 4: It contains a prep. phrase (“with self-deceptions”) and is unpunctuated.
Line 5: It contains a coordinate clause (“and the iridescent image swims”), and is unpunctuated.
Line 6: It contains a prep. phrase (“through a mirror”) and an adjective clause (“that flows”), which modifies “mirror.” 
Line 7: It contains an independent clause (“you would surprise yourself”), unpunc.
Line 8: It contains a prep. phrase (“in that other flesh”), and is unpunctuated.
Line 9: It ends with a prep. phrase (“with milt”), and is end-punctuated.
Line 10: It ends with a participial phrase (“battering toward the dam”), and is not end-punctuated.
Line 11: It contains an adjective clause (“that lips the orgiastic pool”), which modifies “dam,” and is end-punctuated.

A Kunitz Poem with a Lesson on End-Stopping Built-In

Noticeable in the first stanza of Stanley Kunitz’s poem, “King of the River,” is its minimal enjambment: Most lines are end-stopped. As Edward Hirsch wrote in A Poet’s Glossary, an end-stopped line is “A poetic line in which a natural grammatical pause, such as the end of a phrase, clause, or sentence, coincides with the end of a line . . . It imparts a feeling of completeness (203). (Lines that are not end-stopped, that run on, are enjambed.)

Brewer, on writersdigest.com, defines an end-stopped line as one in which “your line finishes its thought (often with the use of punctuation) before moving on to the next line.” Thus, punctuation can be used, but is not essential, to indicate that a line is end-stopped.

In “King of the River,” the first 8 lines all are end-stopped with a comma.

Line 9 contains just one word, the present participle “tumbling,” without any punctuation. Grammatically, it’s the start of the participial phrase “tumbling over the rocks,” the last three words the contents of line 10. Does “tumbling” effect a “natural grammatical pause.” If it were used this way, it would: “Tumbling, the child scraped his knee.” But in line 9, if Kunitz had placed a comma at line’s end, it would have been misplaced, i.e., “tumbling, / over the rocks” inserts an unwanted pause.

Line 11, “till you paint them,” however, though unpunctuated, is end-stopped because it is a subordinate clause with “till” (until) the subordinating conjunction.

The stanzas last four lines are all end-stopped, ending with these markers: a colon, two commas, and a period.

Further, one line (8) has punctuation within it in addition to a final period: “slapping, thrashing.” That internal punctuation creates a pause within the line called a caesura.

Some Thoughts about Voigt’s Poem “Cow”

Ellen Bryant Voigt’s poem, “Cow,” is about more than just the one cow mentioned in it. It is a valuable poem to read for those interested in how content and form can be intertwined.

The poem contains four quintets without any capitalization or punctuation, which makes the poem both more challenging to read and more intriguing to read. Voigt bypasses the problems the absence of punctuation can create by presenting the content in semantic chunks. Examples include “end of the day,” “daylight subsiding into the trees,” and “lights coming on,” the three comprising the poem’s first line. Those chunks control how the line’s read, inserting an invisible caesura between each pair, so I read them as if they were written this way:

end of the day   daylight subsiding into the trees   lights coming on

The poem’s light-heartedness, almost tongue-in-cheek tone, combined with the choppiness of its flow (e.g., “they get some grain some salt they get their shots no catamounts”) also contributes to the poem’s effect.

Another of the intriguing elements of the poem is this wording: “the smaller brain // serving the larger brain,” that content spread across two stanzas. The “smaller brain” refers to the ant, the “larger brain” to the cow, both used in a symbolic way; after stating that, the poem offers no explanation of the wording’s meaning, instead shifting to “the cows eat so we will eat,” which creates a logical gap.

The Website, The Incredible Ant, offers clues as to what Voigt might mean. According to the site, among the things ants do

are aerating and oxygenating soil, adding nutrients to the soil, controlling bug populations, transplanting seeds, pollinating plants and flowers, aiding in decomposition, moving and consuming organic and inorganic material.

That amounts to a lot of activity given the estimate that the earth contains about 10 quadrillion ants. Through that effort, is that how ants “serve” cows? But then, through their activity, the ants are serving many more than cows.


A Brief Introduction to Reginald Shepherd

Reginald Shepherd, a name I was unfamiliar with until yesterday, has written one of the most captivating first two sentences in any piece of prose I’ve read in a long time. In the piece, titled “Why I Write,” Shepherd wrote “I write because I would like to live forever. The fact of my future death offends me.” Those are two lines that not only can motivate most readers to continue reading, but almost have the power to drag a reader further into the text.

Besides writing prose, Shepherd also wrote poetry. He wrote the poem, “Syntax,” in a style reminiscent of e. e. cumming’s. It starts with these stanzas:

Occasionally a god speaks to you,
rutted tollway a flint knife breaching
gutted fields hung on event

horizon, clear cut contradiction
through soybeans and sheared corn: blue
pickup an orange blaze, white letters

The first line is straightforward; however, the second line detours into surrealism. It’s a puzzle whose pieces, at first glance, don’t seem to fit together. It’s as if Shepherd doesn’t even expect or want a reader to try to interpret it, but rather, just to flow with its words and create a new, personal experience from them.