Are The First Lines of Kids’ Poems Memorable?

I just read this post at Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides blog about favorite first lines of poems, which he says was inspired by this post about favorite first lines of novels.

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.

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  • http://poetryonparade.com Janet F.

    School Daze Rap by
    Carol Diggory Shields might qualify….
    “Woke up at eight, oh no! I overslept”!

    Seriously, from Shel Silverstein’s “Sick”: “I cannot go to school today said little Peggy Ann MacKay”….kids relate to this stuff.

    Could what we adults see as “memorable” maybe not be the same as what might grab a kid?

    Take Keats’ “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree” which my kids learn by heart, think about kids wanting to be free, get up and move, get out of school…..not a kid’s poem, but a line they might find memorable.

    I also think kids LOVE a meaningful or suprise or strong ending on a poem. Something that kind of twists…and they go: “ah, or ah ha!”.

    Also de la Mare’s “Silver” again probably not a true kid’s poem, I would guess, but “Slowly, silently now the moon”….well that has a nice ring and I think kids like it.
    Just my quick musings as I know lots of poems by heart, though most are not by current poets, but something to consider as I read poems. Maybe I’ll ask my former students what they think.
    Luckily with a poem, maybe the title and the general notion of “the beginning” gets kids interested enough to read to the end AND if we are lucky learn the poem forever.
    What about “keep a poem in your pocket” ?
    Thanks for starting a conversation, Ed.

    • http://www.thinkkidthink.com Ed DeCaria

      Hi Janet! Thanks for kicking it off. Great examples. Exactly what I was looking for.

      I think your question “Could what we adults see as ‘memorable’ maybe not be the same as what might grab a kid?” is ripe for discussion. Undoubtedly, adults do not read poetry exactly the same as a kid does. I like to think that, as a kids’ poet, I CAN understand and predict the net effect of a complete poem or moments within it. Once they’re in, they’re in, and I can largely control the emotion from that point on. But I am far less confident in my ability to understand and predict — and much less control — the more jarring entry into the poem from whatever it is that a kid was doing just prior to starting to read it.

  • http://poetryonparade.com Janet F.

    PS
    I don’t think there are tons of folks out there who know poems by heart anymore…..and I have found in the last 10 years that I have gotten into doing this that it is a “good thing” in so many ways. However sometimes when you only know the poem pretty well, the first line my escape you. Do you know Elinor Wylie’s “Pretty Words”. You might want to check that one out.

  • http://juliekrantz.wordpress.com julie krantz

    the first one that comes to mind for me is “Twas brillig and the slithy toves…” which totally fits Brewer’s “compelling, urgent and/or UNUSUAL.”

    then I thought of two more… Kilmer’s

    I think that I shall never see/
    a poem lovely as a tree…

    and RLS’s

    how do you like to go up in a swing,
    up in the air so blue…

    Why did I think of these? Maybe because I loved swinging and climbing trees as a kid? Still do….

    • http://www.thinkkidthink.com Ed DeCaria

      Ah, Jabberwocky, of course. Now THAT is a striking first line.

      I like the Stevenson one as well. It lifts the reader immediately into the air along with the verse. The entire poem embodies the feeling of swinging from beginning to end. (You can read it at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171919)

      Great examples. Thanks!

  • Diane Mayr

    The one that came immediately to mind is Vachel Lindsay’s “The Moon’s the North Wind’s cooky.” You can’t get more memorable than that in my book!

  • Diane Mayr

    Or how about this one by Mary Austin, “If you ever, ever, ever meet a grizzly bear,” which is so deliciously not-scary scary.

  • Tabatha

    What an interesting challenge!

    You are old, Father William
    The Owl and the Pussycat set off to sea
    Twas brillig and the slithy toves
    All the Mother Goose rhymes

    I’m going to keep thinking!

  • http://www.quicksilverpartners.com Jeanne Poland

    The first line came:
    “Can you picture shoes on kangaroos?”
    Must confess to liking the illustration first.
    Some of the poets in my critique group never write a title. That makes the first line take precedence.
    Compelling? Urgent? Unusual?
    Urgent to a 3 year old? puddles, wild animals, piercing sounds, siblings threatening them, separation anxiety, parents violently…unjust punishment..acrid smells…
    I’m off to search the first line of all my poems on my blog.
    http://www.thevibrantchanneledcreator.wordpress.com
    Objectivity, please come and be my companion.
    Jeanne Poland

  • http://www.poemfarm.amylv.com Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

    The first one that jumps in is –

    “The owl and the pussycat went to sea…”

    Such a sense of journey – and why would they be together?

    Now, Ed, I will be thinking more carefully about the first lines I read and write too…thank you for the thought.

    a.

    • http://www.thinkkidthink.com Ed DeCaria

      Everyone except me seems to remember this one!

      I do agree that it is memorable.

      (Now that I remember it.)

  • http://www.quicksilverpartners.com Jeanne Poland

    here are the first lines I found unusual in my 165 poems on my blog:
    1
    I feel gassy brassy
    loose-y dousse-y
    plucked and pressed
    ‘n raw “n juicy!
    2
    Annika
    wanna ka
    Oliver pie.
    3
    I’m apt to adapt
    When slapped by an app
    4
    The rachety crab pincers pinching away
    Comes crawling and biting: big bug;
    5
    “Red Hair Red Hair
    Please come here!”
    I’m waiting on the toilet.
    6
    Wonder Woman jumped her plane
    Parachute no where;
    7
    Web
    whisks
    by
    taking
    paths
    unseen.
    8
    Zoom in
    to zither’s
    whisper.
    9
    Today I tip-toed through the texts,
    Twinkle-dee and twinkle dum!
    10
    I jump. I sleep.
    I wiggle-squiggle.
    11
    Hot spur Lady,
    harum-scarum,
    gadarene
    red-haired scream?
    12
    Who is This Quicksilver?
    who creates
    mercurial poem- paintings which
    effervesce like rainbow bubbles
    freshly blown?
    13
    Egg played a joke on me:
    14
    Privacy rang my doorbell: “Ding!”
    15
    Scribble
    Dribble
    In the mire.
    16
    Sometimes
    My soul awakens me
    At night.
    17
    Curmudgeon bites black bitter brambles,
    18
    Editing A Video on an iPhone4s is like trying on a dress that’s too small…
    19
    A poem is a beep,
    20
    A woosh, and a ping;
    21
    Ge kok! Ge kok!
    Aggressive cry!
    Loud mating call!
    22
    Hard to reach
    Tiny fluffs
    Grew below
    As day
    Sped by
    Between my toes.
    23
    You scuttled into my dream
    Skidding on the surface
    Claws on skin.

    • http://www.thinkkidthink.com Ed DeCaria

      Hey, even I remember #17!

  • http://www.mattforrest.com Matt Forrest

    Ed, I thought about this for just a few minutes when something occurred to me; we as adults, do indeed, read things differently. Janet F. alluded to this, but as I thought about memorable opening lines, all the ones that came to me were adult-oriented:

    “Whose woods these are, I think I know…”
    “Whan that Aprille, with his shoures soote..”
    “There once was a man from Nantucket…”

    Like you, I’ve read thousands of great children’s poems, yet the first lines elude me. Perhaps, as important as the opening line maybe, we simply process literature differently as kids than we do as adults. And if that is the case (and why wouldn’t it?), it’s helpful to keep that in mind as we write for children.

    Thanks for bringing this up!

  • http://www.dashkaslater.com Dashka Slater

    I read AA Milne’s poems so often as a child (and as an adult) that I k now many of them by heart. Their rhythm was always so infectious that it carried me in from the first line.

    James James Morrison Morrison

    The king told the queen and the queen told the dairymaid

    I never did, I never did, I never did like…

    There once was a Dormouse who lived in a bed

    I went down to the shouting sea….

  • http://www.poetryforkidsjoy.blogspot.com Joy Acey

    Interesting question Ed.

    Here are a few and I bet you can immediately identify them.

    1. Cried Maizie a lazy bird hatching her egg, I’m tired and I’m bored and I’ve kinks in my legs.

    2. In the great green room…there was a telephone, and a red balloon and a picture of–

    3. A hill is a house for an ant, an ant.

    4. Opossums at times take a notion to drop / Whatever their doing and come to a stop.

    5. The gentle cow is good and kind./All day she chews with gentle mind.

    6. Eye balls for sale, fresh eyeballs for sale.

    Yes, the opening line is important but for poets it is the end line that holds most of the impact for the poem. Have you ever seen an essay on memorable last lines in fiction? I think not. Just another reason why poetry is different from prose. and I agree with Janet et.al. that children process poetry differently from adults.

    If you don’t know the answers to the examples above try

    1. Horton Hatches An Egg–Dr. Seuss
    2. Good Night Moon–Margaret Wise Brown
    3. A House is a House For Me–Mary Ann Hoberman
    4. Opossums–Jack Prelutsky
    5. The Gentle Cow– Mary Morris Duane
    6. Eyeballs for Sale–Jack Prelutsky

  • Melissa Kelley

    “I went to play in the park
    I didn’t get home until dark
    and when I got back
    I had ants in my pants
    and my father was feeding the shark”

    All right, it’s not a line, it’s a first verse, but it is always, always with me.

    By the same poet (Dennis Lee – Canada’s answer to Children’s Poetry)

    “When they give me a plate full of stuff that I hate
    Like spinach and turnips and guck
    I sit very straight and I look at the plate
    and I quietly say to it “yuck.” ”

    The Jabberwocky is always with me. Milne and Silversteen are both geniuses at this. Children’s poetry does seem to tend towards the “grab you” final line (Little Orphan Annie, anyone?) but there are some lovely exceptions.

    • http://www.thinkkidthink.com Ed DeCaria

      One of the many things that we will be able to analyze as part of POEMETRICS™ is the punchline, or that “grab you” final line in the case of more serious poems.

      After this discussion, I will set things up to allow us to pay an equal amount of attention to openers as well.

  • http://www.allanwolf.com Allan Wolf

    This is tricky. As I began to rattle off first lines of children’s poems in my head, I had to ask myself, which lines were TRULY memorable (One Sister for Sale!) and which were merely “famous” (Mary had a little lamb). Add to that a third question: which lines do I simply have “memorized.” In the end I’ve decided it doesn’t really matter. I’ve been memorizing poems for 25 so I’m probably at an advantage because of that. Also my idea of “memorable” is probably skewed. Also, I found that some were not famous first lines, but more properly, “couplets” or an opening stanza. I haven’t included any Mother Goose rhymes in my list, just cause. (Remember that “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or more properly “Mary’s Lamb” is by Sara Josepha Hale, who was also instrumental in talking Abraham Lincoln into establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

    “‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house”
    “I’ve never seen a purple cow”
    “‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves”
    “The sun was shining on the sea, shining with all his might”
    “The owl and the pussycat went to sea”
    “The fog comes on little cat feet”
    “Winken, Blynken, and Nod, one night”
    “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”
    “I cannot go to school today,/said little Peggy Anne McKay”
    “The Goops, they lick their fingers”
    “The more it snows, Tiddly Pom”
    “Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay”
    “The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees”
    “The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day”
    “One sister for sale! One sister for sale!”
    “Keep a poem in your pocket, and a picture in your head”
    “maggie, and milly, and molly, and may / went down to the sea to play one day”
    “when in just spring”
    “Every time I climb a tree”
    “Once upon a midnight dreary”
    “They went to sea in a sieve they did/in a sieve they went to sea”
    “Mary had a little lamb”
    “Over the river and through the woods / to grandmother’s house we go.”

    Next up: The most memorable “refrain” in childrens’ poetry.

    • http://www.thinkkidthink.com Ed DeCaria

      Allan touches on a relevant distinction: the difference between “having memorized something” and “having been mesmerized by something”.

      I am talking about the latter … openers that really capture my attention and imagination the first time, and then stick with me over time.

      Perhaps a better way to ask my question is: What poem do you love because of its opening line? vs. What is the opening line of a poem that you love?

      • http://poetryonparade.com Janet F.

        Ah the prolific mind of Allan! I like the idea of “having been mesmerized” by something. What I have found is that once I know a poem by heart, it almost takes on a richer, deeper meaning for me, saying it over and over. So, my ability to analyze the strength of a first line might be skewed some….I just got back to this and read through the conversation. I have to say that Frost’s “Whose woods these are, I think I know” is compelling because it makes you wonder and kids are famous for wondering why, plus “I must go down to the seas again” from Masefield’s Sea Fever are two others I never forget. The Masefield one being lifelong since my mother often recited this to me. I like your idea of going through poetry books and looking at the lines while covering the rest of the poem. Will give that some time in the next week. And will check in with my former students who are now in gr. 4 and 5 and see if they have any quick insights!! Kids love humor and by the way we learn Jabberwocky by heart, too and the kids “eat it up” ! You should see their enthusiasm and hand-motions. (We don’t have hand-motions for many of the poems we do, but this one brings out their inner-actor!)

        I also agree that the newer poems have not been heard as much so that might be why we can’t think of them as easily and remember back to the poems or books we heard when little like “Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house” and the first line from Goodnight Moon. (How many times have those with kids read that book?). I also think “So much depends on a red wheelbarrow” or just “So much depends” again, makes kids wonder….again not a traditional kids’ poem, but kids like it nonetheless. I also have to mention one they love by Silverstein: “Ickle me, Pickle me, Tickle, me, too went for a ride in a flying shoe.” Everytime I introduce or share this poem….the kids have a good reaction. Maybe it is a story and they want to know what happened or its the rhythm and rhyme and perhaps they just wish they could do that, too…..but come home safe and sound. Again, quick musings. So glad you pose these questions, Ed. You should come to NCTE in Vegas!!! There are a lot of poetry people there abouts!

  • http://www.quinettecook.com Quinette Cook

    Ed,
    I found myself coming up with first lines for nursery rhymes and tongue twisters and these were memorized when I was (much) younger. It is interesting to think about first lines in poems and I wonder if they are more interesting when you look at first lines in poems in verse novels?

    Now I’m curious…

    Thanks a lot. :)

  • Dom D

    Ed, it seems from the initial comments that you have already achieved a milestone. Quinette sums it up: “Now I’m curious…”. Fantastic development in a short time of exploring POEMETRICS(TM) – by the way is it required to be capitalized?

    • http://www.thinkkidthink.com Ed DeCaria

      I kinda dig the capitalization, but in the end the people will do what they want! To this day people aren’t sure whether they should call themselves a sabermetrician or a saberist …

      Either way, POEMETRICS™ (or plain old poemetrics) will enable both qualitative and quantitative exploration of this genre in ways that I don’t think most people have seen before, in a way that will benefit us all.

  • http://www.poetryforkidsjoy.blogspot.com Joy Acey

    May I throw in:

    We be cool

    Or was it written kool?

    Great list Allan

  • http://www.katyaczaja.com/ Katya

    The three that came to mind for me:
    “The crocodile went to the dentist” (sets up a plot)
    “Belinda lived in a little white house” (intros a character)
    “One was johnny” (intros a character)

  • http://www.teacherdance.blogspot.com/ Linda Baie

    I am so late that the ones I know are already shared, yet I do know that those I do remember are old, except for a few by Shel Silverstein. I was read Eugene Field and others like James Whitcomb Riley in my childhood, added Milne when I read to my daughter. I must admit that there are many I love by Karla Kuskin and Eve Merriam, but do not know many by heart. Although many teachers with whom I work write and teach poetry, I don’t think any require memorization. Good thoughts to ponder, Ed.

  • http://www.thinkkidthink.com Ed DeCaria

    Great comments by all. I challenge each of you to open a few kids’ poetry books and ONLY read the first lines. Literally get yourself an opaque sheet of paper and cover everything else except the first line, and then read it. Alone. Naked. Exposed. Does it hold up to the standards you expect and enjoy in adult poetry and novels?

    As for my own analysis, I was genuinely surprised at how much I did NOT find the first lines of the poems that I scanned to be compelling, urgent, or unusual. Could be a sample issue (I only looked at a few hundred), but it could be a sign.

    I am going to keep a close eye on opening lines from now on, starting with a fresh review of my own work. I may actually separately post the opening lines of the dozen or so poems that I’ve previously shared here on TKT for additional self-reflection and comments from you all.

  • http://www.1000poems.com Vikram Madan

    I think there’s a valid observation in here … the more contemporary poems are unlikely to be well known enough – or oft repeated enough – to stand out amongst the mass of poetry any poetry-loving kid will be exposed to, and therefore the ones with the most remembered opening lines are likely to be ‘classics’ (Jabberwocky, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, .. ) or ‘nursery rhymes’ (that are repeated so many times as to be etched in our brains). I think the same observation is true of adult poetry too – how many first lines stand out from poetry written in the last 50 years? Maybe a poem has to survive the test of time before it enters our collective consciousness…

    • http://www.thinkkidthink.com Ed DeCaria

      Thanks, Vikram.

      There’s also a difference between standing out IN TIME and standing out IN THE MOMENT.

      The example I gave in my 7:58pm CT comment above was a poem whose first lines helped it stand out in a search on a category tag. Even if I don’t remember this poem or this line ten years from now, it still stood out. In the instant that it needed to to entice me to read it.

  • http://www.thinkkidthink.com Ed DeCaria

    So here’s an example of why first lines are essential to hook the reader. Follow this link to a category search on the Poetry Foundation website: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/browse/#subject=48

    You’ll see a list of poem names with byline and, you guessed it, the first 1-3 lines of the poem.

    There are 433 poems that came up in that particular search, with 20 links showing on the first page.

    Decision, decisions. On what basis will I ever choose which link to click?

    You, of course, already know the answer.

    So congratulations, new-to-me poet Linh Dinh, whose search-visible opening lines were:

    I hate to admit this, brother, but there are times
    When I’m eating fried chicken
    When I think about nothing else but eating fried chicken,

    How could I NOT read that?

    Well done, opening lines. Well done. (Much like the chicken that she later goes on to describe.)

  • Dom D

    To make a baseball analogy, let’s not forget also that you almost never decide to pay to see a baseball game just because the leadoff hitter is incredibly fast. That said, iTunes has a feature which allows users to hear about 20 seconds of free music at the point of purchase before deciding whether to buy, and that seems to drive billions of dollars in revenue for Apple and the recording artists. The fun part is, however, the songs rarely (if ever) start in the beginning. Using that technology, Apple sells songs based on the clip which samples the best overall flavors in the meal – not just the bread that you get when you sit down.

    I see where you made the connection between opening line of the poem and decision to purchase, and I know more insight is forthcoming. It will be interesting to see if over time the curiosity of the group leads to a more clear understanding of poetry strength and success, which one hopes would later lead to better marketing (and compensating) of the Poets.

    • http://www.thinkkidthink.com Ed DeCaria

      But you might choose whether or not to pay to see a game based on the probable starting pitchers.

      Yeah, I wonder what logic is used to determine which 20 seconds of the song is used in the iTunes preview (or the 30 second Amazon preview).

  • http://www.leebennetthopkins.com Lee Bennett Hopkins

    And there is this everlasting first line by Langston Hughes in his poem “Dreams” — “Hold fast to dreams … “

    • http://www.thinkkidthink.com Ed DeCaria

      Why hello, sir. Welcome to Think Kid, Think! Appreciate you stopping by to comment.

      That is a terrific opening line, because I rushed off to read the poem immediately.