The First Line Epiphany

shakes

Scholars might argue with me, but I would be willing to bet that an awful lot of William Shakespeare’s writing began when he had a sudden realization of a great first line.

We poets know how it is: You’re mowing your yard, taking out the trash, or doing some other mundane chore when suddenly WHAM-O — a great first line just sort of strikes like lightning. You write it down in your pocket notebook, and when you come back to it later, that first line serves as a catalyst for some much bigger piece.

Sometimes these first lines survive in the final draft, sometimes they don’t. No matter why those primary words strike us as they do, they almost always reap great rewards. Even if those initial ideas get culled, the work they produce tends to be refreshing, inspired, and original.

Sometimes the first lines occur because of weird word combinations; things like “nuclear neurology” or “concrete coffee” tickle our fancy. Other times, it may be a random statement from a stranger that rings with a certain poetic something.

One time, a student of mine informed me that “The ice cream trucks in our neighborhood only play Christmas carols.” While the exact iteration of his words didn’t survive in my later poem’s final draft, the concept of a summertime ice cream truck tooling about playing “Jingle Bells” was too irresistible to refuse. It became “Merry Summer,” a sonnet-like piece written from the perspective of a boy waiting to hear the warbled yuletide tunes of the dirty, somewhat questionable ice cream truck.

First line epiphanies are some of my favorites. There’s always such a bright hope and a brilliant promise that comes with an entire line coming into consciousness. When we have a start, we’re obliged to build toward an end. Think I’ll go mow the lawn and see what strikes…

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