And I thought to myself, “What is my favorite first line of a poem for kids?”
And then I answered myself, “I cannot think of a single first line of a poem for kids.”
And then I challenged myself “Really? Not a single one? C’mon — it’s the first line! Those carefully chosen, agonizingly arranged words that immediately set a poem apart from all others. You’ve read thousands of kids’ poems. Thousands of first lines. AND YOU CAN’T REMEMBER A SINGLE ONE?”
And then I flicked myself in the forehead and said “Stop it.”
But that must have shaken loose a brain cell, because then I did remember one:
“If you are a dreamer, come in,”
— from “Invitation” by Shel Silverstein in Where the Sidewalk Ends
Which is a lovely first line, but still cause for concern because it’s the only one* that I could remember among thousands, which led me to only two possible conclusions:
1) I have a terrible memory, OR
2) The first lines of 99%+ of the kids’ poems that I’ve read aren’t very memorable.
So … which is it?
I’m not going to defend my memory in public, but before I blame myself entirely for this embarrassing episode, I decided to consult my growing POEMETRICS™ database for information about first lines. Specifically, I looked for opening lines that were “compelling, urgent, and/or unusual” as Robert Lee Brewer stated in his post as a desired characteristic of a great opening line.
Well, at the risk of flicking the entire kids’ poetry genre in the forehead, I am going on record as saying that the first lines that I previewed were really rather weak across the board. Now, this is not yet a definitive collection of poems or poets, and there is much more to learn over time, but so far the first lines seem to fall into three major buckets:
- Introduction to characters (“We are Doodies, smooth as eggs,”)
- A problem statement (“There is a spot that you can’t scratch”)
- Kickoff of a plot (“This morning I got kidnapped”)
While many of the poems go on to finish quite strong, their opening lines do not set the stage as one might have thought. The poets seem to assume that readers WILL read each poem in its entirety, and that they can therefore get away with a casual first line. In this exercise, however, I read ONLY the first lines, one after another, and very rarely found myself hooked by that first line alone (the above examples are some of the best ones).
What if potential book buyers did the same? What if new technologies emerged that exposed would-be readers or buyers or renters to just that first line prior to committing their time or money? Are kids’ poets missing their opportunity to hook readers on Line 1?
Just something to think about.
What do YOU think? Can you recite any “favorite” first lines from kids’ poems? If so, please share them in the comments. Also, please share your observations/opinions on the first lines of kids’ poems compared to those of general audience poems or of works of prose.
*I do have a decent number of kids’ poems memorized — at the very least my own — but to me that’s not the same as having a stand alone “first line” burned into memory.