Good Beginnings

One thing many great songs and poems have in common is a great start. As soon as you hear the first chord or the first few words, you know that you want more.

The Beatles were very good at creating memorable openings for their songs. Take the beginning of “Hey Jude.” No instrumental prelude, no drumming to build anticipation, Paul McCartney just starts right in, his voice and piano chords firm and confident (0:50 mark):

Same with great poems. No introduction and no background stuff like from a 19th century novel (what Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye called “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”). Take the first line of T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”:

      A cold coming we had of it

Six one-syllable words and one of two syllables. And yet there’s something memorable about this line, probably because of its inverted word order, that’s what sticks in the head. If we write it with normal English word order, like this:

      We had a cold coming of it

something goes flat.

McCartney also begins simply, with six one-syllable words:

      Hey Jude, don’t make it bad

There’s something about keeping it simple that can make a poem or song more inviting too, with less chance for confusion over the words. With the first line of Eliot’s poem, we’re inside the tale, on the journey, and with the first line of “Hey Jude,” it’s like we’re getting in on advice addressed to someone else.

What’s the point of view or “voice” in these examples? With Eliot’s poem, it’s the slightly odd first-person plural “we.” And who’s “we”? Well, the magi of the title, of course, but it’s not all of them speaking together, it’s one magus speaking for the group, presumably, but we don’t know who he is or even how many magi there are. And with “Hey Jude,” the song is addressed to the second person “you” of Jude, not the “you” of us, the listeners.

Does point of view have anything to do with great starts? Probably not with these two examples, but it’s always worth thinking about.

Here’s a couple examples where the point of view is not so clear, which probably does add something. Let’s start with the first line from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

      After great pain, a formal feeling comes —

Here it’s a kind of third-person point of view. I say “kind of” because, this being a poem, concise and compressed and with no other information to go on, it’s natural to wonder “who’s pain?” The speaker’s? Meaning there’s an unstated “I” behind it all. Or is it someone else’s pain, perhaps someone who’s now dead and is being mourned?

In The Band’s song “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” the point of view is an implied second person in the opening chorus, which begins calmly and mysteriously with lines of variable length after just a few brief seconds of jangly instrumental music:

      Corn in the fields
      Listen to the rice when the wind blows ‘cross the water
      King Harvest has surely come

But then in the first verse the song switches abruptly to first-person singular and things rev up, making it feel almost like a different song.

With both Dickinson’s poem and The Band’s song, the title comes from the text. Many of Dickinson’s poems and those of her contemporary Walt Whitman are known by their first line. Later poets tended to give formal titles to their poems. This provides a place outside the poem’s text where additional authorial information can be supplied to the reader.

For example, without Eliot’s title, “Journey of the Magi,” we really would have no idea what its first line refers to. So when we say this poem has a great start, we should probably also add “assuming you know its title.”

“Hey Jude” is also the first two words of that song, so the song’s start doesn’t depend on knowledge of its title, whereas with the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life,” the title does not appear anywhere in the lyrics and is important in making sense of the song.

Sometimes a beginning can make an unexpected reference, and this can add to the surprise and pleasure the first time you encounter a poem or song. For example, take the first line of Elinor Wylie’s sonnet “Atavism”:

      I always was afraid of Somes’s Pond:

Here we have a first-person point of view, and a little mystery introduced with the pond, whose name means nothing to us. But there’s something else too. By ordering the opening words “I always was” instead of the more common “I was always,” Wylie not only establishes the poem’s iambic pentameter, but also creates a strong first line.

These examples are all more than fifty years old. Here’s something more recent, a song called “Why” by the punk rock band The Linda Lindas. The title doesn’t tell us much and certainly doesn’t prepare us for the first line, which is practically shouted:

      I look up and see the sun

This almost sounds like a variation of the rock trope of “staring into the sun,” but then the second line subverts that association nicely: “I didn’t want it anyway.”

Even though this song is a punk anthem, its lyrics also work as poetry, as they’re written primarily in iambic tetrameter, with initial truncation in the first line and elsewhere.

(The video should skip automatically to the song; if not, advance it to the 5:55 mark.)

With the three example poems, each begins with a specific choice of diction that commands attention; probably no one would speak quite like that. With the three example songs, it’s a combination of distinctive music, voice and lyrics that makes for their memorable beginnings.


© 10 Franks 2022

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