“You got a lotta nerve/ To say you are my friend” – doesn’t this set the scene for what is to come in the acid lyrics of Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’? Forget famous last words, what about famous first words: “Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together” (Paul Simon); “I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour/ but heaven knows I’m miserable now” (Morrissey/ The Smiths), “You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht” (Carly Simon); even the Spice Girls gave us the unforgettable:
Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want
“The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat”; “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky”; “Matilda told such Dreadful Lies/ it made one Gasp and Stretch ones Eyes” – the first lines of poems I learned by heart as a child (by Edward Lear, John Masefield and Hilaire Belloc). “Call me Ishmael”, the unforgettable opening line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” opens Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: both sentences have become as famous as the books themselves. In fact many people who have not read the novels will know these first sentences.
What started this train of thought was a quote by the musician Julian Cope in The Guardian (10/1/2015):
I grew up mostly with poetry books and my mother’s fascination for an index of first lines. She thought every great poem must reveal itself in the first line and I’ve written every rock’n’roll song with that in mind. When my first hit came out [with The Teardrop Explodes], the first line was “Bless my cotton socks I’m in the news” – it was written with my mother in mind. I want to go to my grave with a colossal index of first lines.
For writers, the first line of a poem, song, story, novel or article may be the last thing they decide upon. It often is for me; I can think of only one poem where the first line of the first draft remained the same: “A drought is declared and it rains for a week”. Usually I draft and redraft and look at the strength of the first and last lines much later on. The last line is the strongest statement; the first line the second strongest. If you don’t engage the reader/listener from the start, you’ve lost them.
Some years ago, I sent a piece to BBC Radio 4’s Home Truths, and for a short time I became a columnist for the programme. This was my first experience of being professionally edited, and it came as a shock. The producer told me that the first page and half of what I had sent needed to be cut; that she had found the first line of what was to be broadcast on the second page. With a few editing suggestions, this line became: “I had him plastered on my teenage bedroom wall; hair flying and shirt ripped open.” It was a good lesson for editing my own work; the first things that you write are often just warming up before getting to the good stuff. They might be good words in their own right, but belong elsewhere in the piece. The line you are looking for may not be in the first draft at all, but it may well be halfway down the second page or even at the end.
The same caveats apply for first line suggestions from other people as for any editing suggestions: is it what you want or what the editor or workshop member would have written if it were their work? I am not part of a workshopping group for writers at present, and have had mixed experiences in former groups. Some negative suggestions absolutely floored me, almost made me give up on poems and stories I was working on. You need to have a strong belief in your work, be open to suggestions and also be prepared to reject those suggestions. But that’s a whole other blog post.
Opening lines are important for public readings and talks. All too often, I have heard a poet or singer at an open mic apologise for how rubbish their poem or song is, or over-explain the roots of it or what it means. If you’re too shy to do anything but read your own poem, then just do that – introduce it by its title, then hit the audience with the first line.