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Emily's First Lines

April 2014

This prompt began in reading an article, "Where Shall I Begin?," by Jessica Greenbaum about being inspired by first lines.

"Like poetry itself, a secret channel exists between the first line and the mind. What forces are at play may never show themselves fully, and some resounding openings attach to memory by more mysterious motives. Ever since Howard Moss handed my undergraduate class a copy of Randall Jarrell’s “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” in 1979, the poem’s first line has captained the troops of first lines, reminding me that observation, cadence, rhyme, and lyricism all prime the poem. “The saris go by me from the embassies,” begins the speaker, “Cloth from the moon. Cloth from another planet.” Where are we? What’s happening?"

Back in 1999, I wrote a rather crude program that would generate a random line for a poem and used it as a prompt. My first line generator is still online and I did a second generation line generator because it was popular. Now it seems rather crude and limited (though fun).

But there are plenty of lists of poetry first lines in anthologies and online.

For this month's prompt, I have chosen the first lines of Emily Dickinson as our starting place. That's a lot of first lines to choose from!

I tried it myself. I was struck by her first line "How dare the robins sing."  I think it was the coming spring, lack of robins in my backyard and the audacity I heard in that line that made me choose it.

I wrote my poem WITHOUT looking at the rest of Emily's poem. I suggest you do the same so as not to be influenced by her. When you finish the first draft, take a look at her poem. It might suggest some revision to your own poem. (In my case, I was pleasantly surprised that Emily and I were walking down the same spring path.)

Go to the index of Emily Dickinson's first lines and pick a line or two to start. The only requirements of this prompt are that you use that line as your first line (or start for a first line - you can lengthen it), and that when you title your poem, include the number assigned to Emily's poem (She didn't use titles.) so that others can see your inspiration. 

My poem would begin:
How dare the robins sing...

For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.


Had I known that the first was the last!
Is it a paradox or is it true?
With striving one is cast
Into actions one will rue.

Here you are at interviews
And yet they ask you silly questions
Not asking of your good deeds
Or what you did in long sessions.

Something was wrong:
Data was slow in coming back
The work stretched out so long;
Was their curiosity an attack?

Even those who know they are first
Will answer when asked
With anxious silence, as if cursed
That was quite a task.

Your mentor was distant
Almost indifferent
As if nothing could go wrong
You were almost heaven sent.

One can be too critical
Thinking this work
Unfinished though ended
Are the note books of a jerk

We are harsh upon ourselves
Thinking we should be number one
Good days are incomplete
Unless we learn of fun.

Edward Halperin


Faith is a fine invention
it keeps the wolf of doubt at bay
diluting apprehension
putting disbelief away
sidelining skepticism
confining incredulity in a box
it becomes a soothing salve
or cell with locks

Faith may boost the
the probability of inattention
and final answers,
discounting anything that challenges its end
so that, faithfully, no mind will bend
to newer sets of circumstances

Faith's the over and the under
side of willing. It has a most engaging voice
but is often not afraid of killing
anyone who's made another choice

Jim Culleny


The past is such a curious creature
capable of creating such marvelous lies
that we begin to believe as we hear them
said again and again, forgetting that
there are those who love to distort
the truth and let it spill out and break
into brittle bits & pieces that are left
on the street to be kicked and crushed
until the shards are too small to see.

The past writes a story of its own choosing.
Its pen might be inked in faulty memory;
its paper might be marked in things that
did happened as well as those that did not.
This story is examined with the lens of exaggeration
and embellishment until the tale that remains
is now so embedded in our minds
that we can no longer know
what was truly real and what was not.

Mary Kendall


Sleep is supposed to be
restful, rejuvenating, reinvigorating
but the nights have been so cruel
for so long since then, and now
with blaring trumpets and insidious
thoughts working my head --.
what can stop this horror of sleep,
this deadly joke of tumultuous repose?
I feel to be the bone that has no marrow,
the man who has no peace,
my war which has no end,
my life a coin to spend.

The late Velupillai Prabhakaran was the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,
popularly known as the Tamil Tigers. His body was displayed by the army in May 2009,
after recovery from the Nandikadal lagoon. He had been shot in the head, blowing off part of his skull.

R. Bremner

How dare the Robins - Sonnet

How dare the robins! Sing, but not to me-
I've better things to do in early Spring
than hearken to some birdsong reverie,
some foolish, sentimental, gaudy thing.

How dare the robins sing in such a way
it hides itself as verse in sonnet's guise,
which seems archaic when it's done today,
too pentametric for our modern eyes.

How dare the robins sing sad threnodies,
songs the Sirens sang so long ago,
disguised as raptures, bright Spring melodies,
which Demeter and her lost daughter know.

Call back that heartache to our memory?
How dare the robins! Sing, but not to me-

Michael Crivello


Make me a picture of the sun:
a collage. Use what comes to hand:
yellow dusters edged in red
and orange zest to represent
the summer high noon overhead
blaze that burns the backs of ears,
mix with salt sweat and chalk
from the cliffs, narcissus petals,
the pale yolk of an egg when stale,
add all the unwanted Yellow Pages,
history’s turncoats, jaundiced faces
Doris Day songs, a little blond hair.
It will be big and bright and hot.
It will be bigger than its parts.
They will see it in the Arctic Circle,
in all the dark places, from space.

Robin Houghton


At half-past three a single bird –
woodpecker by looping glide bright
against the shade of afternoon.

He bored into a chink in bark,
he caught a rhythm with his beak,
and tattered in a grave tattoo.

I saw those birds in a dying oak,
when my dog still hobbled behind
on daily walks. Woodpeckers

in changing patterns dark and light,
until a single bird flew off, alone
and my old dog led me home.

Taylor Graham


I had been hungry all the years
mistaking joy
for bones picked clean
greasy with contentment
a pit in my stomach
still and all
gnawing a hole in time
I should have known
you would not fill me

Anita Sanz


I have not told my garden yet
That one of the Live Oaks
In the front yard
Has been struck by lightening.

For over a century
This old oak has stood there,

A lived in tree,
Home to squirrels, birds,
Forts and rope swings.

Under its dense canopy,
Protected from the summer sun,
Children grew up
In a lived in house.

The back yard must not know it,
Today's downed branch,
The hollowed trunk

Bobbie Townsend

Emily Dickinson Part Five: The Single Hound CXVI

Love reckons by itself alone
There are no wiles that can confound
No stealing umbrage out to prove
That absence merits only harm
Love is not pain, or rule, or law
And having, holding husk or skin
The empty body gathered in
Without the freely beating heart

Iris Lavell


Death is a dialogue between me and myself.
No one else is interested in the discussion--
least of all, my oncologist
whose eyes slip away
whenever I broach the subject.
His job, after all, is Healing
or if that's not an option, giving Intravenous Hope.

Family and friends are all about positive attitude
which is the direction in which I have led them--
(Why waste today?)
except for J. whose positive attitude
takes a more realistic and defiant track--
"I'll beat you at Yahtzee all the way to the end!"
My kinda gal.

Me and myself recognize the need for discussion.
Death is coming to us all sooner or later--
just in my case sooner.
And sooner is not necessarily a bad thing.
Longevity can have its own set of miseries--
for many, its only saving grace being
the ability to draw breath.

There's worse than death.
It's the dying part nobody likes.
Dying is messy and sometimes maddeningly long.
Dying is painful and not just for the one doing it.
Dying is giving up what little control you have left
and dying is saying goodbye
to all that is familiar and beloved.

The dialogue between me and myself often involves
"The Dying Game." There are several versions:
"The Quick and Painless Exit,"
"Lookin' Good to the End"
and my personal favorite,
"Leave 'Em Laughin' in the Aisles!"
The rules of the game are simple:
Number 1. Only the two of us can play.
Number 2. There is no "Get Out of Jail Free" card.

Barbara Caldwell


As far from pity as complaint,
In public, her 99 years is a brag
To every clerk or waitress,
As if only the blessed age.

But in private, she endures—
The knees which grind and catch;
The eyes which no longer read;
Her native language

Dissolving like morning mist
Never to be regathered--
There’ll be nothing to say
When again she meets her mother.

Her husband long alone on the hill
Will chide for making him wait.
She fears he’ll believe
She’s grown inconsiderate.

Which all explains the end
Of each chat with her lone aged friend
By praying each might die tonight,
At home, in her own bed.

Ron Yazinski


Follow wise Orion
For its garden is dormant

Without a sound
Only whispers around

French words are singing there
In the silent light of a Presence

Infini, cet instant,
Lumière, le ciel immense,

And the poet’s soul is haunting
Mossy barks and fading borders

It’s waiting for friends and readers
And prays for Transparence

Listen to its voice
Seconde, éternité, soleil, silence

Can you hear its transient calls?
Can you feel its endless pain?

Follow wise Orion
Prisons are not eternal

A pure legacy was made
By emerald hearted spirits

They know they are angels
There’re lingering in the shade

Their Sun above
Is much brighter than ours

They guess the clarity of love
The music of which sounds like a French word

No wrath, only salvation,
Be not afraid of them and try to remember


Follow wise Orion:
Love is everlasting.

Frédéric G. Martin

(DCCCXXV #825)

An hour is a sea
if waiting in THE ROOM
--you fear
the ere unimaginable.
Each minute you try
not to walk the wall--keep
the inner wail in. You
refrain from grabbing
a stranger's hand
watch your tight wrist
the silent type
but hear tock tock
of a beaten heart.
You hope for remission
or you'll be tossed asea
till it swallows
sooner than....

Mary Orovan


Bring me the sunset in a cup
    and I'll give you the sea in a silver spoon.
Wrap me a rainbow in ribbons and lace
    and I'll gather you forests in twine.
Catch me a star in a trinket box
    and I'll fetch you moonbeams in a mason jar.
Feed me figs from honey trees
    and I'll serve you wine from dew-drenched leaves.
When our days are done, we'll spill the sunset from the cup
    and dance away in swirls of pink and gold and gray.

Barbara Whitehill


I heard a fly buzz when I died
Hovering just above my corpse -
Attracted by the putrefaction -
Like the fetid angel of remorse.

Strange I should be lying here
Splayed upon the broken ground
Looking at the paleness of the sky
And hearing caws - the only sound.

I feel a tingle on my nose and see
An ant march across my bridge - where
He’s going - or why - I do not know -
Such travel but an oddity lying here.

Days pass - maybe eons - I can’t tell
Since light and dark are no more worth -
And time now no longer a relevance
Than all the world before my birth.

All the seasons - passions - daily turns -
The cold and heat - war and peace -
Pride and lust - love and hate
Trouble not. I’m absent at the feast.

Robert Carroll Miller


I know some lonely houses off the road
that I pass in my morning walking
where angels in the early sunrise
left the door ajar.
I see a woman pour coffee stooped over
a table with places set for no one.
A man looks out but won't see me
because he is looking for something gone.
I smell a new fire being made,
the hot flame of tinder cracking the dry bark.
It is still cold and foggy but I smell lilacs
in the front yard of the dead-end house
where I turn back and walk faster,
towards the sun while shadows walk upon the hills.

Pamela Milne