I'm this poetry-writing group where each month we write a poem in response to a prompt given by one of the group members. This month's prompt was to write a "first poem" -- the first poem of a new project, or a poem intended as the starting piece for an in-progress project. Which, of course, begs the question: What is a first poem? What does it look like? How is it different from, say, the seventh poem of a project, if it's different at all?
In order to explore these questions, I decided to read the opening poems of a bunch of poetry collections. What I found was that first poems often do indeed have a distinct "first poem" feel to them. Some of them make promises to the reader about what's to come, such as the confident final lines of "Sweet Jesus," the opening piece in Matthew Zapruder's American Linden (Tupelo, 2002): "I vow I will touch you / always more distant stranger." Bobby C. Rogers' Paper Anniversary (2010, Pittsburgh) begins with the poem "Meat and Three," which muses on work and language and closes thus: "...our work right where we left it, laid out so carefully, but still just words / darkening a page. I'll have to look at them a long time before they turn again to sounds on my ear."
Often, maybe always, the opening poems establish a subject matter and stance for the rest of the collection. In Jim Daniels' Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry (Carnegie Mellon, 2010), the first poem is "The Complete Lack of Home Movies," which clearly positions the poems in the book as taking the place of those non-existent reels of film, with all the power and fluidity of memory and language: "We can change the background from sepia // to neon ..." Dean Rader's Works & Days (2010, Truman State) starts with "Traveling to Oklahoma for my Grandmother's Funeral, I Write a Poem About Wallace Stevens," a piece that perfectly sets up his book, which is both deeply personal -- as in the grandmother's funeral part of the poem -- and thoughtfully engaged with literature, art, and philosophy, as in the "poem about Wallace Stevens" part of the poem. Christina Olson's Before I Came Home Naked (2010, Spire Press) starts with the title poem, and tells us this is where "the story of us begins."
Many of the opening poems I read had a feeling of invocation. Tracy Brimhall's Rookery (2010, SIU Press) starts with "Prayer for Deeper Water." Megan Snyder-Camp's The Forest of Sure Things (2010, Tupelo) similarly opens with "Sea Creatures of the Deep" and the incantatory lines "O sockeye O rock sole O starry flounder / O red Irish lord O spiny lump sucker." Monica Youn's Ignatz (2010, Four Way Books) starts with the poem "Ignatz Invoked." Frannie Lindsay's Mayweed (2009, The Word Works) begins with the title poem, and these words: "Rise now from kneeling / in front of your east-facing window / lamenting your sins aloud / to the slugs in your garden."
These opening poems are sometimes explicity about opening events, new places, new seasons, new things. The first words of Julia Kasdorf's Sleeping Preacher (1992, Pittsburgh) are "The first day of false spring ..." Bob Hicok's Words for Empty and Words for Full (2010, Pittsburgh) establishes time and place quite clearly with the poem "In these times," where the speaker finds himself "under a new sky." Timothy Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation (2010, Wave Books) begins with a piece called "The New Intelligence." Nancy Eimers' Oz (2011, Carnegie Mellon) opens by dropping us into "Grassland": "There is something furtive about the water here."
When I was in the MFA progam at Western Michigan, Bill Olsen talked to us about about what he called the "lyrical contract" established by the opening lines of any poem. My own clunky interpretation of this concept is that within the first few lines, a poem establishes how it's going to use language and syntax, how it's going to break lines, how it's going to engage with the reader. (The poet is free, of course, to break that contract later, but must do so knowingly, intentionally, with full awareness of the effects and risks of that break.)
It seems to me that the first poem of any collection fulfills a similar role: establishing a relationship between poem and reader, creating a bond for the journey ahead through the rest of the book. The poems in the books I've mentioned here all achieve this -- in a variety of ways, of course. There's not a one right way to craft a first poem, obviously, any more than there's a one right kind of any poem, but I think that first poems are bound by the desire to open, in all the senses of the word: commence, launch, initiate, unfold, unfurl: to lead into possibility.
The poem I ended up writing for this month's prompt is called "Love Letter During the Opening Scenes of Law & Order," and at this point, I have no idea whether it accomplishes any of the things I want it to. But I am well pleased to have spent this time considering first poems -- at the very least, it was an excuse to look closely at some excellent poetry, and I might have even learned something along the way.