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Writing

How to Write a Great Opening Line for Poetry: Tips and Examples

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 16, 2020 • 4 min read

Great poets like E. E. Cummings, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, and Robert Burns may write in different poetic styles, but they all have one thing in common: the ability to write an unforgettable opening line. The opening line of a poem should grab the reader’s attention, invoke the thematic intentions of the poem, and give an insight into the poet’s writing style.

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Why Is the Opening Line of a Poem Important?

Just like with a novel, a short story, song lyrics, or any other piece of creative writing, the first line of a poem should give the reader a reason to continue reading. A poet might accomplish this by presenting a striking image, a thematically rich turn of phrase, or an unusual use figurative language within the first words. In the case of narrative poems, the opening lines may serve to introduce a character or plot device. Regardless of the type of poem, the opening line serves the same purpose: to hook the reader and encourage them to read the whole poem, not stopping until the very last line.

11 Examples of Poetry Opening Lines

There are a thousand different ways to begin a poem, but the best poets have a way of grabbing the reader’s attention from the very onset. Here are some examples of poems by famous poets that have particularly striking first lines—in fact, for many of them the first line functions as the de facto title of the poem.

  1. “I wandered lonely as a cloud” from “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud (Daffodils)” by William Wordsworth
  2. “Whose woods these are I think I know” from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost
  3. “Because I could not stop for Death” from “Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson
  4. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” from “How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  5. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” from “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare
  6. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
  7. “Let us go then, you and I” from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot
  8. “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done” from “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman
  9. “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art” from “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art” by John Keats
  10. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
  11. “All the hills and vales along” from “All the hills and vales along” by Charles Sorley
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4 Tips for Starting Your Poem

Writing poetry can be exceedingly difficult, especially when it comes to writing the perfect opening line. A poem’s opening line represents the first time a reader has the chance to see your writing style or absorb your poem’s subject matter. Here are some great tips to help nudge you in the direction of writing the perfect opening line for your poem:

  1. Consider your form. Before writing your opening line, you should know what kind of poem you are writing. Different types of poetry might require different techniques and priorities when crafting an indelible opening line. If you’re writing a haiku, you’ll want to pay special attention to the syllable count. A rhyming limerick demands that you establish the rhyme scheme within the first line. Free verse poems—which are not rhyming poems nor are they bound by a specific meter—offer a chance to focus purely on choosing the right words or expressing an idea. No matter what type of poem you’re writing, you’ll need to pay attention to your poetic form in order to write the best possible opening line for your own poems.
  2. Begin by freewriting. Poetry writing can be arduous. Sometimes, it’s helpful to give your brain the freedom to daydream and wander when writing poems, unburdened by the shackles of rhyme scheme, meter or line breaks. That’s where freewriting comes in. Begin with the seed of your poetry idea; perhaps it’s something as small as an image or a phrase. Force yourself to jot down as many words, ideas, or images as you can without stopping. Keep writing until you’ve filled the entire page with writing ideas or poetic phrases. At the very least, this exercise can serve as useful writing practice and may generate ideas for other writing projects, but oftentimes freewriting can yield kernels of good poetry and even a great opening line.
  3. Draw from personal experience. Great opening lines forge an immediate emotional connection with the reader. Though it’s possible to be inspired by abstract writing prompts, usually the best place to start is personal experience. Try to incorporate your actual memories, personal reflections, or lived experiences into your poetry. Starting your poem off with something personal and unique to your own life will give your poetry a jolt of authenticity and specificity.
  4. Read your first line out loud. People don’t just read poetry; they recite it to others. If you’re having trouble writing a beautiful opening line, think about how your poem sounds when read aloud. The best lines of poetry have an appealing sonic quality to them, and many famous poems marry crisp imagery with pleasing sounds in their opening lines. Edgar Allen Poe’s opening line of “The Raven” uses alliteration to produce a satisfying staccato effect when read aloud. Other literary devices like assonance or internal rhyme can function as dynamic poem starters. Always read your own poetry out loud to see how your first line rolls off the tongue.

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