A pen on paper

Inspiring poem starter lines

By BBC Maestro

Crafting the first line can be the hardest part of writing poetry. There’s a lot of pressure involved with beginning a new piece of work, especially writing the opening line. Will it capture my audience? Will it set the scene as I want it to? Will it do my ideas justice? 

If you’re staring at a blank page, wondering how to begin a poem, start by reading our article. We share some inspiring poem starter lines along with tips for crafting that captivating opener.

Good examples of opening poetry lines

Let’s start with some inspirational and well-known poem introductions. If you’re struggling to craft that perfect first line, take consolation from being in good company. Every poet that’s ever written will have at some point stared at that blank piece of paper, parchment, or document, and wondered what on earth to write first. They managed, and so will you.

Here are a few famous poetry sentence starters: what makes these first lines so memorable?

‘April is the cruellest month’

T.S. Eliot –  The Wasteland

The opening line of this epic poem is arresting because it contradicts the norm, that springtime is a time of renewal and beauty. Here, April is merely the beginning of the whole, pointless cycle.

‘Do not go gentle into that good night’

Dylan Thomas –  Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

By opening with a bold negative imperative, the Welsh poet grabs your attention then holds it immediately with the unexpected “gentle”. Imagine Michael Sheen reciting it, and it’s even better.

‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’

Elizabeth Barrett Browning – Sonnet 43

We’re naturally drawn in by the question, then become intrigued with the promise of finding out “the ways”. Many people can recite at least the start of this sonnet, as it’s so popular at weddings.

‘Yes, I remember Adelstrop –‘

Edward Thomas – Adelstrop

By beginning with “Yes”, we’re already in a conversation with the poet. It’s an intimate introduction to a poem, and we want to know what memories he is about to share.

‘Because I could not stop for Death’

Emily Dickinson – Because I Could Not Stop For Death

Are we hearing a voice from the afterlife? There’s a lot to intrigue us in this first line: the poet’s voice, the personification of Death and the use of “because”, so we know we’re about to get an explanation.

‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’

William Shakespeare – Sonnet 18

Like the Barrett Browning sonnet, this is a wedding favourite and arguably one of the most famous opening lines in the English language. The rhythm is lovely, the imagery both beautiful, relatable, and again, a question pulls us in.

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’

Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse

If you’re looking for a poem with a bold start, you’ve found it. As well as the shock of the swear in the first line, the opener also immediately challenges a convention: that parents raise and nurture us.

‘We first met when your last breath’

Carol Ann Duffy – Premonitions

That contradiction in the first line instantly raises questions: how is this even possible? “Premonitions” works backwards from this opening line, as the poet imagines meeting her mother at the point of her death then traces their relationship in reverse. It celebrates life and loving.

How to start a poem

From these examples, we can see that there are so many ways that you can introduce a poem. Intrigue, question, challenge, contradict, chat, shock: these are all poetry sentence starters that attract our attention, and hopefully the next lines will make sure that we’re held within the poem.

What’s the beginning of your poem?

How to write engaging poem starter lines

Like most aspects of writing, crafting a poem is about technique as much as inspiration. Following these steps towards writing a first line will help you create that captivating first line.

Decide your form

Before you write your first line, it helps to know what poetic form you’re going to use. Are you writing a free verse poem, or does the first line need to rhyme or conform to a certain length or metre?

Just write

Break the curse of that blank page or document, and just write anything. Start with one word or even a doodle – anything to spoil the silence of the empty page. Make notes, try lots of ideas, and it really doesn’t matter if you later decide that most of these are rubbish. Just keep writing, and something will be right: your idea will come out if you keep prodding away at it.

Refine your words

Read your notes back and pick out two or three ideas or phrases that you like. These could form the basis of your first line. Rework and refine these phrases until you feel you have something that you can really work with.

Read it out loud

How do the words sound out loud? Do they have a pleasing rhythm? If you have worked on more than one opening line, which one sounds the best when recited? Does the metre you’ve chosen complement your poem’s theme?

You may need a few cycles of refine and recite before you’re happy with your opener.

For a wider look at how to write poetry for beginners, read our helpful article. The first line may do a lot of heavy lifting, but it can’t be made to carry the whole poem alone. Continue to build momentum line by line, until you reach the end of the poem’s journey: how far has it travelled from that perfectly crafted starter line?

If you want to build your skills as a poet, sign up for the BBC Maestro poetry course, taught by Scottish poet and former Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. She covers all aspects of writing poetry, from finding that first piece of inspiration to building a collection of your poems.

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