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Poetry Game: Write the Next Two Lines of These Poems

The way a poem begins clearly has consequences for mood, tone, register, voice, line length, pace, style, and so one. It may contain at least a hint of form or structure. The first couple of lines may work together or seem (deliberately) to create tension. They suggest a path for the remainder of the poem.

Here’s an exercise, mainly for fun. Below are the opening two lines from six poems. You’re invited to to write the next two or three lines (but no more than that) in each – however you feel the poems should continue. Please post them as comments. Don’t google them as reading the whole poems may influence the way you hear the lines. If you already know some of the poems from the opening lines, that can’t be helped – you are still welcome to have a go.

On Thursday morning I’ll post the original two lines that follow each opener. I’ll also post who wrote them and a link to the book they come from. It will be interesting to see whether our attempts mirror the tone and voice of the originals or if we re-imagine their voice, tone etc very differently from seeing just these opening lines.

***OK, at the end of this article, I’ve just posted who wrote the poems, and added the original two or three lines that follow each opener***

We may learn something interesting about poetry from doing this, or we may not. There’s only one way to find out…

1.
I’ve decided to waste my life again,
Like I used to: get drunk on

2.
His rough angels keep their beds unmade
in the north of paradise, hang about

3.
Paradise, an
endless movie. You

4.
It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
red roots cut across it pine needles alongside

5.
Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.

6.
Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted
commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering

(and to save people from having to look up dictionaries for ‘strambotto’, it’s an old verse form)

***

Here are the original 2 or 3 lines that followed the openings, along with their authors and the books the poems came from:

1.
I’ve decided to waste my life again,
Like I used to: get drunk on
The light in the leaves, find a wall
Against which something can happen,

from May Day by Phillis Levin, from the collection, May Day (Penguin USA, 2008 – you can read the full poem here, and in the book of course)

2.
His rough angels keep their beds unmade
in the north of paradise, hang about
in speckled flames, he lets them stream
grimacing through drugged plums, Which
of these wings is your afterwards?

from poem no. 5 in the collection, The New Divan (1977) by Edwin Morgan – you can read the full poem in Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1996)

3.
Paradise, an
endless movie. You
walk in, sit down in the dark, it
draws you into itself.

from Kingdoms of Heaven in the collection, O Taste and See (1964) by Denise Levertov – you can read the full poem in New Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2003)

4.
It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
and the forest full of berries and flitting spirits

it wasn’t the path of truth for all of a sudden
it lost its unity and from then onward in life

from Path by Zbigniew Herbert in the collection Inscription (1969) – you can read the full poem in The Collected Poems (Atlantic Books, 2009)

5.
Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.
Fish do not slow down. A good robe. Pencils. The back of his head.
Breeze. Scene in another language. Beds hard as boards. A girl climbing

from Elements of Night by CD Wright, in the collection, Further Adventures with You (1986) – you can read the full poem in Like Something Flying Backwards: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2007)

6.
Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted
commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering
watermarks this time of day. Time to get out
and, as they say, about. Becalmed on a sea

from Wolf Ridge by John Ashbery – you can read the full poem in Where Shall I Wander (Carcanet, 2005)

This Post Has 50 Comments

  1. I’ve decided to waste my life again
    like I used to, get drunk on
    sorrow and pain, wake up sober
    missing the taste of love on bitter lips.

    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    the bicycle sheds smoking discarded butts
    waiting for devils in skirts to shimmy by.

    Paradise, an
    endless movie.You
    scroll down, looking
    For the exit, it’s marked Death

  2. I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on

    Fresh air; unmake my bed
    Eat cake and burn candles.

  3. I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    Cider and blackcurrant,
    Come home with my knickers in my pocket.

  4. His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    With their feet up on the clouds
    Riffing Stairway on their grubby harps

  5. 1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    a strange stew of gin and hormones,
    waiting for the world to spin.

    2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    the border of the underworld
    catching Satan’s attention

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    dont make my director’s cut,
    I press delete on all your scenes.

  6. 2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    the corners under lampposts
    always on the lookout.

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    a book, kept
    between the sheets.

  7. His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    like vultures on street corners.

    One wrong-footed move
    and you’ll see yourself, rent, gutted
    dragged up to the screaming heavens.

  8. 1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    music, now I get my highs from
    writing poetry.

    2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    in city bars and make their mother cry
    in anguish at their brutality.

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    hope you’ll see
    right through.

    4.
    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
    his truth, her truth, my truth, the truth.
    What’s the difference, anyway?

    5.
    Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
    Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.
    A living Pelmanism game – the task to remember disparate items –
    a Wordle list of unconnected ideas, to weave into harmonious whole.

    6.
    Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted
    commas of a strambotto*, seditious whispering
    complains of extra syllables. For the sake
    of poetic form, we need a guillotine
    to cut them down to size. While we’re about it
    a metaphor or two wouldn’t come amiss.

    * a single stanza poem of 6 or 8 lines, each with 11 syllables. I am an obedient poet.

  9. It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
    and if a rose grew anywhere it was well hidden.

    It wasn’t in hindsight the path I might have chosen
    green shoots split the stones with parables
    and if there were answers I never found them.

    In an ill-fitting coat regret as a buttonhole
    the perfect crystals drift covering tracks
    every path taken or mistaken is its own truth.

  10. This is fun, let’s have more games!

    I’ve decided to waste my life again
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    daydreams and a half of lager,
    scribble lipstick numbers on mats,

    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    his small clouds with messages unsaid
    their candle feathers stiff with doubt.

    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    as the star and I
    as the dressing table.

    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
    the creek. He could hear the distant hum
    of insects, the uncertain stammer of his thoughts.

    Cold food, homework and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
    Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.
    Stiff underwear in the bathroom. Something being dragged
    out into the hallway. Fireworks and sobbing. Black sandwiches.

    Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted
    commas of a strambotta, seditious whispering
    of near cock up, disaster only averted
    by strict discipline and carefulness when counting.

  11. “Don’t google them as reading the whole poems may influence the way you hear the lines”

    OTOH, it might tell me what the hell a strambotto is! The OED couldn’t….

  12. Kind of like doing scales before practising the sonata

    1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    unrequited spiked with acid
    let the old beast chew my bones.

    2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    on clean-lined sliproads, thumb lifts
    from strangers fooled by the glow.

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    take a nap; you know
    the plot.

    4.
    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
    the woods that ring with disappointment as pilgrims
    shed their hopes and hair shirts utterly prayerless.

    5.
    Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
    Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.
    Beatlemania. Screams of girls. Heavy surges through amphitheatres.
    Lipstick like want. Her sister’s mirror. That clip on bowtie. Fake.

    6.
    Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted
    commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering
    of free verse. In Starbucks, shoppers swap
    words without rhyme; punctuate with line breaks.

  13. 4.

    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
    the trail to the woods, teddy bears mugged me
    for my picnic, story of my life : a grim fairy tale.

  14. It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
    liquorice innocent resin in trampled sand
    dinted with cones from unnamable evergreens

  15. This is shameless, but ‘great poets steal’, right?

    1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    In the north of paradise, hang about.

    2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    In the north of paradise, hang about
    Paradise, an
    Endless movie, you.

    3.
    Paradise, an
    Endless movie. You—
    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path,
    Red roots cut across it pine needles alongside.

    4.
    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path,
    Red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
    Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books,
    Moths like flour, venetian blinds, wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.

    5.
    Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
    Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.
    Attention, shoppers! From within the inverted
    Commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering…

    6.
    Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted
    Commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering,
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on.

  16. 1. I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    Pink champagne and snort cocaine
    Who knows? Tomorrow we could all be dead

    2.His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about

    On street corners moving heavenly dust about with their toes
    Wry smiles on faces lost in contemplation of falling

    3.Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    Are watching with your arm around my shoulders
    Any minute now you will kiss me

    4.It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
    So all I had to do was walk, one foot in front of the other
    Contemplating nothing but the pattern of branches across sky and ants

    5.Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
    Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.
    Red lips smeared, huge teeth biting down, orange lights reflecting, sky overhead
    Rainbow in oil, used condoms, child’s toy fallen from the pram, scram

    Can’t do 6…

  17. 1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    The color of any woman’s eyes
    And the staggering giggle of her soul

    2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    the neck, a noose of many colors.
    An effort to conceal identity

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    Cannot get free popcorn.
    This is not that sort of film.

    4.
    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
    Industrial (or was it) Enterprise Parkway. (Who knows?)
    The mailman dragged adverts through the trees.

    5.
    Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
    Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.
    Empty, empty beer bottles. Built for recycling. Everything.
    In three years I’ll leave this hole. Happier?

    6.
    Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted
    commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering
    about la dolce vida, unblemished, unperverted.
    Barker shills promise, price and tickling.

    (Wow, this game revealed I am officially having a bad day.)

  18. 1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    Neat vodka lies, the seven
    Graces of obliteration.

    2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    in arcades that never close.
    They hone their skills on shoot’em ups,
    practise endless virtual deaths
    but never lose the feel for breath.

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    shot it in technicolor
    without the u,
    made reel after reel
    of brazen skies
    that never greened
    a single tree.

    4.
    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside.
    You trod with care, coaxed silence from twigs
    that under my feet cracked under the pressure
    5.
    Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
    Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.
    Old comics stained with heroes. His last gum sculpted to the sill.
    The freeway traffic stuffed with the sound of going home tonight
    6.
    Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted
    commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering
    is now on sale in our bedlinen department,
    this pillowtalk is discounted. The cotton sheets
    come crisp and cold as a lover’s or a poet’s lies

  19. 1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    the smell of strawberries, lie
    in the grass, let ladybirds
    tickle my nose.

    2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    flicking fingers and cigarette butts at passing
    cars, skirts riding high, the smell of whisky
    on their breath

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    an endless nightmare.

    5.
    Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
    Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.
    Rain in the summer, stars shining in the day. Snakes with legs.
    Moon shadows. Sorrow in your heart.

  20. 1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    the hunt, prowling purposely.
    Loving playfully with no purpose.

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You,
    an epic novel with short chapters.
    Who will the ending surprise?

    5. Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
    Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye
    alkie talk. Bare lightbulbs in the closets. Barbecue sauce on the doors.

  21. 1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    Thoughts that swell to fill the emptiness
    With tomorrow’s broken sounds.

    2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    on street corners with bottles of cheap booze,
    their wings folded into newspapers.

  22. What a fun exercise! I think I’ll share this with my students.

    1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    cheap wine and stay up all night,
    flirt with the girl I don’t even like

    2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    the ceiling all day smoking cloves
    and telling stories about the good old days.

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    a leading man
    who forgets
    to lead.

    4.
    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
    the river in the distance spoke of things
    we couldn’t know of heaven and hell of love

  23. 1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    The dreams of sunny rays kissing
    Away fuzzy cobwebs of life

    2.
    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
    withered holly and crumpled red bows
    Santa dragging empty sled back north

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    calm, loving. I awake to
    a roar, furious, yours!

  24. 1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    Gingerale and champagne
    While you tickle my nose
    And we backmask and bubble together…

    2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    They winter there and raise no doubt
    The cold is sure to come.

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    Topia your way and
    I’ll You Topia mine…

    4.
    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
    It wasn’t a root of bitterness it was simply a root
    Angered leafless tree arms spread out;
    plunging and stabbing jagged pricks into the cool blue sky.

    5.
    Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
    Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.
    Furniture arranged catty-cornered. Intentionally off-center.
    Yet somehow disturbingly … centered. Inside.

    6.
    Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted
    commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering
    Seditious laughter. Seditious whimpering.
    The sound of children waiting for the doors to open.

  25. 1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on

    Juno’s gin and honey wine
    Just lookin’ for the wrong sort of spirit
    to lose myself in.

    2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about

    Great muscles splayed
    Strong thighs set, and braced
    only to Protect him, and to Save

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You

    wrote the score,
    My sweet-breathed beauty.
    A pristine note sings.

    4.
    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside

    thistled plants desperately snatched at the trouser cuffs
    and skirts of passers-by….
    And I could smell the Earth’s ripe feminine tang

    5.
    Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
    Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.

    The lost sound of an angered cat. A meddlesome neighbour dies.Soot sitting deep in places that were once bright. The cooker – encased in solid grease.

    6.
    Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted
    commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering

    has prompted us – The Management – to institute
    and, of course, thoroughly execute,
    the following, relative incongruities masked as discontinuous, discrete entities.

  26. Thanks for the definition, Rob. One of those verse forms that sound like drinks, eh? “I’ll have a double sestina please, and a strambotto with an umbrella for the lady…”

    Gotta ask: did you choose these specific openings because it was difficult to imagine any continuation that could rescue them? Apart from no 4, which is so-so, they all look disastrous to me, the sort that would make the reader turn the page in search of something more interesting!

  27. Sheenagh, I chose them because they were distinctive and led to radically different styles of poem (in the originals). Also, they all led to very good poems!

  28. Hi.

    What a lot of contributions compared to usual, when there’s the chance of an audience for our efforts!

    Crikey Sheena, sounds like you might have polished off a double sestina and a round of strambotto’s before posting your comment! I’d never feel able to comment on the quality of a poem when I’d only read the first two lines.

    I’m simply happy this activity has got me writing again, for the first time in months, and the two-line openers have created some really surprising results. Thanks Rob.

    Here are two of my efforts:

    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    Fear. The lump in my breast
    more intoxicating
    than any beer.

    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    fast forward, never much
    of a movie goer.

    I haven’t the heart
    to let you in
    on the joke.

  29. Caroline, the trouble is that the first couple of lines are what gets you into a poem so if they don’t hit the spot, the danger is that many folk won’t read further. My husband, for one, wouldn’t have read on with any of those starts. Granted, he’s not a poetry person, but then that’s the sort we want to reach out to, isn’t it?

    A poem might get better after a weak start, agreed. But it’d still be a weak start. I found the hardest thing with trying to play this game was that I didn’t actually want any of those poems to go any further…

  30. I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    Saki, sitting in Japan, the life according to Pan,
    Many roads I did walk, once I did talk,
    Big Plans, I had in my Hands,
    Now look at me, I can’t afford a cup of tea,
    China Pot? Ha, I’ve had the lot..
    Now I am filled with hopelessness,
    No Gucci shoes, no one to use,
    Stripped down to the bone, good bye fancy throne,

  31. I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    laughter and meaningless conversation
    with those I let slip through my fingers.

    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    like white albino bats with smoke stained wings
    ready to embrace the night.

    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    the backstory,
    the credits, mine.

  32. I agree with Sheenagh in that I found that I didn’t like most of these beginnings. I figured that this was because they were so different to my ‘voice’, and the object was to pick up the thread and continue. Reading is a different matter though, so I would be interested to see where the poems go.

    A strong beginning is essential in a poem – it opens the door to the poem’s world, so the title can cast its light around inside and you can poke about and see what’s in there. Conversely, I think one should step off lightly from a poem leaving the door ajar.

    I’ll stop now, with the waxing!

  33. Yes, it’ll be interesting to find out who they all are. I only knew one (no 3), but did break rules and google the poncy-sounding last one because I wanted to find out if my guess at the author was right…

  34. Well, it’s a matter of taste, isn’t it? But I bet we all wish our work could be as immediately distinctive! That said, I think you will find the authors’ identities interesting, Sheenagh

    Some interesting thoughts there, Helen, especially the idea that a line we might find unpromising when it comes to our own writing might produce good poetry in the hands of someone else, and we might enjoy reading it. Very true, of course.

  35. Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
    Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye.
    Underwear dripping in the bath, pop tarts toasting, nicotine windows,
    the smell of yesterdays bacon and air freshener battle the sweat of fear.

  36. I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on
    Love and home-made wine
    Reeling along the river path
    To stand by the weir and stare …

  37. 2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    like any earth-bound lager lout;
    proud they’ll never make the grade.

    &

    2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    like bats in belfries, unafraid
    to let it all hang out.

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You
    a momentary star. I
    an awestruck extra. Life
    short but good where e’re you are.

    4.
    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside
    not to initiate or even demonstrate
    how like unrestrained nature we are
    just sometimes reaching wide often falling far

  38. OK, I’ve just posted the original two or three lines that followed on from the openers, along with the authors’ names and the books where you can read the poems in full. I’ll be back later with a few thoughts, or possibly tomorrow, depending on how fast my brain works…

    Thanks very much to all of you who had a go at this, including anyone who did it but didn’t post their entry. I hope you enjoyed the exercise. I’ve certainly enjoyed reading your attempts.

  39. Rob,
    What a brilliant competition. I really enjoyed reading the entries. The fact that they were so good proves I was right not to submit mine! Thanks too for the author’s names and details of books. Enough there to keep us happy for quite a while.

  40. His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about
    feel the breath, the hidden stink
    to reach the underworld, bleak
    thorny, ever waiting.

  41. Sorry, I’ve been busy and it’s taken me longer to do this than I thought. Anyway, a few words on the poems first. These represent my own personal thoughts, not any consensus view. I’ll pick out a few favourites from your attempts later:

    1.
    I’ve decided to waste my life again,
    Like I used to: get drunk on

    The first two lines of this poem give an impression of the plain-style laddish, mock-confessional poem that characterised British poetry in the early nineties. However, Phillis Levin continues:

    The light in the leaves, find a wall
    Against which something can happen,

    That wall and the indefinite desire it represents moves the poem just a little elsewhere. What happens then (and you can read the whole poem at the link) is something else again. It’s a terrific piece, I think. It subverts the expectations of its opening two lines while somehow remaining entirely consistent with them.

    2.
    His rough angels keep their beds unmade
    in the north of paradise, hang about

    Great scene-setting here. In two lines, we know we’re on the margins of something. The angels are ‘rough’, not what you expect from a traditional angel. Their beds are unmade, and they’re in the ‘north’, far from the centre of things. They ‘hang about’, like teenagers outside a chip shop. But Morgan isn’t writing a stock poem of urban decay:

    in speckled flames, he lets them stream
    grimacing through drugged plums, Which
    of these wings is your afterwards?

    These lines are incredible, I think. The drugged plums, that phrase ‘stream/ grimacing’ (great line-break too), and who but Morgan could have come up with ‘Which/ of these wings is your afterwards?‘? It is consistent with the squalor of the first two lines, but you’d never have guessed the poem would shift like this, nor can you predict where it’s about to go now…

    3.
    Paradise, an
    endless movie. You

    What’s immediately striking about the first two lines is their brevity and the strange line-breaks. The poem is announcing itself as different from the norm and, as such, has to justify its decisions by doing something interesting:

    walk in, sit down in the dark, it
    draws you into itself.

    The poem keeps up an irregular line-length and contains several fragmented phrases. It soon becomes clear that the cinema is literally one of the kingdoms of heaven, an echo of something beyond itself.

    4.
    It wasn’t the path of truth it was simply a path
    red roots cut across it pine needles alongside

    Immediately evident here is lack of punctuation. The sentences run into each other, and this was characteristic of Zbigniew Herbert, especially in his sixties period. It’s as if an eye is seeing or a mind is thinking these things live and it’s all going down on paper in real time. The continuation:

    and the forest full of berries and flitting spirits

    it wasn’t the path of truth for all of a sudden
    it lost its unity and from then onward in life

    The style certainly suits rumination, reflection on ideas and images, the kind of thing at which Herbert is a master.

    5.
    Cold food, homework, and hair. Rooms with a radiator and no books.
    Moths like flour. Venetian blinds. Wallets tossed from cars. Cockeye

    CD Wright is a genuine experimenter. With every collection, she pushes herself further and never seems to rest on her laurels. This is a fairly early poem from a 1986 collection. It’s a list poem – a poem made up of fragments of images, noises, snatches of conversation – but quite a cinematic list – not Hollywood, but imagine a French arthouse movie from 1965. The title, ‘Elements of Night’, defines the nature of the list, as it continues:

    Fish do not slow down. A good robe. Pencils. The back of his head.
    Breeze. Scene in another language. Beds hard as boards. A girl climbing

    The ending of the poem is quite chilling:

    Sprayed on a wall: Leo dies alone. Also, 1981, Where is my beautiful daughter.

    6.
    Attention, shoppers. From within the inverted
    commas of a strambotto, seditious whispering

    Typical Ashbery. The mix of tone and registers – a supermarket announcement, an arcane literary reference, and out-of-earshot sedition all in the space of two lines, juxtaposed together, as if anything could be less natural. It continues:

    watermarks this time of day. Time to get out
    and, as they say, about. Becalmed on a sea

    That ‘Time to get out/ and, as they say, about’ makes me laugh – as if it is some meaningful response to the first two lines!

    One quick reflection here is that the first lines of a poem are so important to establish the kind of poem it will be, even of the rest of poem sets out to overthrow initial expectations. There’s nothing casual about these opening sentences. They’re each calculated to make a particular impact. Plenty to learn from them, I think.

  42. On reflection, I decided not to pick out my favourites. It wasn’t a competition, and I’m just glad that many people took part (several without posting the results) and enjoyed the exercise. Thanks to all of you for writing and reading.

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