Not a lot of fuss is made over poem openings today. Sure, we all know that April is the cruelest of the months, and I am sure you secretly (or if you were a truly brave middle schooler, publicly) compared a love interest to a summer’s day. But how many other poem openings do you hold close to your throat? Is that number lower than your quiver of favorite poem endings or favorite poem titles? As a teacher and editor of poetry, I perpetuate this subconscious bias constantly. My students cannot count how many times I have recommended and fawned over the titling of Terrance Hayes’ “American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin” poems. And when wearing my magazine editor hardhat, I find myself slicing, rearranging, and meter-ing toward the end of a poem.
So why this blind spot in poem openings? Is there a recent, collective gap in critical writing on first lines? Are we as poets trying to mimic the tension of mainstream television, what with its affinity for cliffhanger endings and abrupt character deaths? Well, I have no idea why we notice endings, and all my guesses are boring or immature (imagine a bible without Revelations, or a dog who lives forever still wanting to be man’s best friend). What I do know, though, is that you can learn a lot about the value of openings from anime.
Now, before you click away in fear that this article is a thinly-veiled advertisement for merchandised body pillows, I encourage you to watch the video below:
This song opens every episode of One Punch Man, a satire on the machismo-strong men in anime and their seemingly endless capacity for physical strength and mental stability. More importantly, it opens the show with a reaffirmation of a hero archetype that the protagonist does not find any joy or purpose in identifying with. Simply put, One Punch Man never lets viewers forget the expectations it gleefully breaks, and I would argue that some of today’s best poems also work in this same vein of assumption-smashing.
Maggie Smith’s wonderful “Good Bones” is a perfect example of an opening that confronts its own expectation. The first line of the poem proclaims, “Life is short, though I keep this from my children” (Waxwing, 2016). “Good Bones” begins with a relative truth and immediately complicates it through syntax, generational scope, and meter. The inherent and disruptive power of the word though is bolstered by the actions that occur on either side: rapidity is just a facet of living, but a quick life is hidden and held by the poem’s speaker. Throw in the presence of children (or the possibility of them thinking more interestingly about a life), and we are forced to muddy our assumptions. What’s more, Maggie Smith sneaks an extra syllable into what would have been a very succinct and comfy ten syllable line (children could have easily been kids), never letting readers snuggle back into an absolute of swift time.
Terrance Hayes also deftly dances against expectation in his “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” poems. One of his recent entries in the “Assassin” series opens with a confession: “Inside me is a black-eyed animal / Bracing in a small stall” (POETRY, Sept 2017). Where Smith convinces us to pull the parachute of time, Hayes pushes us off the ledge of our own surroundings and into his reality. What could have been a simple (albeit triumphant) proclamation of rage and instinct against injustice turns three-dimensional in Hayes’ masterful hands. Bracing is the prism-word of this poem’s opening, transforming the expected caged-animal imagery into one of reflex, preparedness, and communication. The black-eyed animal is bracing for the impact of something (most likely someone). In turn, we the readers must immediately confront that the speaker and his animal personification do not exist in a vacuum. Hayes makes us sit in the small stall and address the feeble, intersecting assumptions of suffering and identity as personal and closeted ones.
If you are worried that Hayes and Smith are the only two living poets who excel at confronting expectation, please don’t fret. There are more and plentiful examples of contemporary poets who work in this sector of expectation-challenging. Kazim Ali, Stephanie Burt, and D.A. Powell all write gorgeous, hungry poems begging to bite the assumptive hand that feeds them. It will always be a personal and slightly embarrassing endeavor, but I am trying to take a deeper, more intentional notice of my favorite poets’ hard work at the launch of their poems. I hope that this short (and sometimes silly) essay will send you back to the mine entrance of your favorite poems with a sharp pickaxe. But if you ever find yourself reading the first few lines of a poem with a glazed-over interest, I encourage you to type anime opening songs into your nearest Youtube search bar. Giant robots and dancing high schoolers aside, you may find a good reminder of just how powerful a creative work’s opening can be.
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Jerrod Schwarz teaches creative writing at the University of Tampa and STEM programs at the Glazer Children’s Museum. His poetry has appeared in print/online journals such as PANK, Entropy, Opossum, The Fem, Inklette, and many more. Most recently, his erasure poetry was highlighted on New Republic and Poetry Foundation. His first chapbook was published by Rinky Dink Press in 2016. He lives in Tampa, Florida with his wife and twin daughters.