Poetry is one of those ideas that can evoke in you a hazy understanding about words that sound quite nice together and that we’re supposed to appreciate because we can’t necessarily understand what’s actually going on.
It also has the unfortunate ability to transport people back into their high school class room, where you watched some poor sod standing at their desk struggling to read to the punctuation of Ginsberg while trying in vain to ignore his line breaks.
In short, poetry requires a bit of effort and is better read in a quiet bit of field (which everyone has out the back of their apartment…) instead of on your daily bus ride home. As such, most bookshelves may not reflect Samuel Taylor Coleridge so much as JK Rowling.
Instead of me waxing lyrical about why poetry still matters despite all of this, I’ve decided to look to poets themselves to prove why it’s worth taking the time to let their language flow over you.
We’re not going to have to read through endless stanzas on a daffodil, because I think that would enforce in many people why poetry is for the supercilious.
Instead, I’ve made an executive decision on a list of powerful opening lines that offer a taster for the rest of the poem.
Cop-out? Perhaps, and I’m sure literary scholars the world over have clicked back onto Wikipedia by now. In the space of a few lines though, these bits of literary art still have the power to move, and that’s one of poetry’s biggest triumphs.
Number 10. I couldn’t possibly talk about powerful of words and neglect this poem. As far as opening lines go, this has become as well known as “do you come here often?”
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Number 9. Proof that you don’t need to frown when reading a poem.
A Boy Named Sue
Well, my daddy left home when I was three,
and he didn’t leave much to Ma and me,
just this old guitar and a bottle of booze.
Now I don’t blame him because he run and hid,
but the meanest thing that he ever did was
before he left he went and named me Sue.
Number 8. Umbrage in verse.
America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
Number 7. Not all poems have to be about a soft scented rose- I love how visceral this is.
things don’t die or remain damaged
but return: stumps grow back hands,
a head reconnects to a neck,
a whole corpse rises blushing and newly elastic.
Later this vision is not True:
the grandmother remains dead
not hibernating in a wolf’s belly.
Number 6. The full effect of this poem really comes through when you read the rest. Hopefully these few lines whet your appetite!
An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow
The word goes round Repins,
the murmur goes round Lorenzinis,
at Tattersalls, men look up from sheets of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can’t stop him.
Number 5. I may be cheating with the number of lines I’ve thrown in with this one, but when you get to the end, you’ll see it’s (hopefully) worth it.
William Butler Yeats
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Number 4. I’m not sure what’s more powerful- grief or love? Both come through in this poem.
O Captain! My Captain!
O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Number 3. There’s a momentum in these words that just keep you hooked on the images, like they’re appearing one after another on a high-speed train ride.
Edgar Allan Poe
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Number 2. The title alone of this poem has more passion than most other things I’ve ever read.
I Crave Your Mouth, Your Voice, Your Hair
Don’t go far off, not even for a day, because –
because — I don’t know how to say it: a day is long
and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station
when the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep.
Number 1. The number 1 opening line for me is actually the poem in its absolute entirety- two lines, and that’s it. This, to me, is the best way to think about poetry.
In a Station Of The Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Ok, I know I’ve exhausted my top ten, but for a final dig at what it means to be a poem, I couldn’t resist adding one final two-liner by the 19th century French poet Hilaire Belloc (again, this is the whole thing).
Lines for a Christmas Card
May all my enemies go to hell,
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel