essay

Great Openings in Poetry

Open door

Instead of telling you of my trials and tribulations pertaining to the writing of multiple poems per week, I thought instead I’d discuss some of my influences – a poet whose work I admire, a poet I read for inspiration, a poet who piss me off because I will never, ever be able to turn a phrase as elegantly as he does.

Some poets I admire because of the way they open a poem, the way, in just a few deft phrases, they suck you right in and next thing you know, you are hip deep in the poem and wading for home.  This is Robert Penn Warren for me.

Wikipedia Bio:
Robert Penn Warren (April 24, 1905 – September 15, 1989) was an American poet, novelist, and literary critic and was one of the founders of New Criticism. He was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He founded the influential literary journal The Southern Review with Cleanth Brooks in 1935. He received the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for his novel All the King’s Men (1946) and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1958 and 1979. He is the only person to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry.

One of my favorite poems of Warren’s is “Trying to Tell You Something”.  The poem discusses spirituality through the guise of an old oak tree trying to survive another winter.

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All things lean at you, and some are

Trying to tell you something, though of some

The heart is too full for speech.

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“All things lean at you” This opening line intrigues me immediately, and I take it at its word.  “and some are Trying to tell you something,” adds to the sense of mystery. Now it has my attention. I am enveloped by the idea of this nebulous something that wants so desperately to put me on the path to Enlightenment, but just can’t, because “though of some The heart is too full for speech.”

The first three lines set the stage as the poem describes this massive tree, ‘ringed with iron’, rods and cables run through its core to keep it alive and upright through another season.  The oak wants to tell us something, it has wisdom to impart, if we just know how to understand what it is saying. The description of the tree, a freezing winter night when “It is ten below zero, and the iron Of hoops and reinforcement rods is continuing to contract” and the “stars crackle” place you on that cold and lonely hilltop.

Those poem has stuck with me for years, partially because of the opening lines, mostly because of the imagery and the feelings the poem evokes, and lastly, the end of the poem, because as often the case, with great opening lines, come great closing lines. Each image builds on the one previous, until the end seems almost inevitable.

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Trying to Tell You Something

Robert Penn Warren

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All things lean at you, and some are

Trying to tell you something, though of some

The heart is too full for speech. On a hill, the oak,

Immense, older than Jamestown or God, splitting

With its own weight at the great inverted

Crotch, air-spread and ice-hung, ringed with iron

Like barrel-hoops, only heavier, massive rods

Running through and bolted, and higher, the cables,

Which in summer are hidden by green leaves—the oak,

It is trying to tell you something. It wants,

In its fullness of years, to describe to you

What happens on a December night when

It stands alone in a world of whiteness. The moon is full.

You can hear the stars crackle in their high brightness.

It is ten below zero, and the iron

Of hoops and reinforcement rods is continuing to contract.

There is the rhythm of a slow throb, like pain. The wind,

Northwest, is steady, and in the wind, the cables,

In a thin-honed and disinfectant purity, like

A dentist’s drill, sing. They sing

Of truth, and its beauty. The oak

Wants to declare this to you, so that you

Will not be unprepared when, some December night,

You stand on a hill, in a world of whiteness, and

Stare into the crackling absoluteness of the sky. The oak

Wants to tell you because, at that moment,

In your own head, the cables will sing

With a thin-honed and disinfectant purity,

And no one can predict the consequences

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Previously published by Constance Brewer on Life on the Periphery