First Lines of Children’s Poems


Are The First Lines of Kids’ Poems Memorable?

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

And I thought to myself, “What is my favourite 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 “favourite” 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.

Note: *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.

© Ed de Cario


5 thoughts on “First Lines of Children’s Poems

  1. After a quick browse through my word files:

    Shel Silverstein Someone ate the baby.
    Louise Grieg I am going off to be a hill.
    Colin McNaughton I’m talking big!
    Allan Ahlberg Nobody leave the room.
    Jack Prelutsky I am falling off a mountain…
    Marci Ridlon My brother’s worth about two cents…
    Rachel Rooney Teach me the language of Cat
    Kate Snow Do slugs dance in the middle of the night?
    Libby Hathorn The teacher took my tennis-ball
    Irene McLeod I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog, and lone
    Bill Condon Pardon my garden, it’s vicious today!
    Lydia Pender Out of my way, everyone…
    Norman Lindsay O who would be a puddin’
    Max Fatchen The song of a thong…
    Robert Louis Stevenson Faster than fairies, faster than witches
    Gwendolyn Brooks There once was a tiger, terrible and tough
    Ted Hughes You need your cat.
    Walter de la Mare At the edge of All the Ages
    J. Patrick Lewis Please bury me in the library

  2. The one that came to mind for me is:

    “James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree”.

    Obviously, it is just a name, but it is such an unusual, musical-sounding name, that it is an absolute pleasure to say it aloud. The repetition is attractive, too, and carries a certain mystery.

  3. Hello Ed,
    Your article certainly made me think. Maybe with poetry we remember the image that is created by the whole poem. Poetry is creating imagery. Maybe if a poet achieves that, then he/she has done something really excellent.
    However I have taken on board what you’ve said. I think one way to achieve this memory of a first line of poetry is to have the main character{ their name] from the poem included in the first line. eg Grandma Strong of Kurrajong —- this is a poem I wrote and everyone jumps on the name. Do they do this because it rhymes? Do they do this because they liked the poem a lot? Do they do this because they liked the overall story contained within the poem and they can relate it to somebody they know? Or simply, did it just entertain them and a rhyming name is easy to remember?
    But what about a nature/environmental poem?
    “I love a sunburnt country” is burnt into my brain. It has been since I was a child. Another line burnt into my brain is:
    “By channels of coolness I hear the creek falling,
    The notes of the bellbirds are running and ringing”
    Now I don’t know if I even remembered the last 2 lines of poetry correctly but they are from the 2 poems that I remember as a child. They both had a great affect on me.
    Maybe the overall quality of the whole poem makes you remember certain lines.
    With Humpty-dumpty I remember the overall poem. Same with Little Bo-peep although I remember the first line very well. But do you notice?
    “Little Bo-peep has lost her sheep,” the name and the rhyme are in the first line
    You’ve made me think Ed. I will get back to you when I think some more.
    Kind regards———John

  4. “Gruesome Gilbert was a ghoul…”

    There’s also the very off-colour nursery rhyme my grandmother taught me which I’d better not quote here. I’ve never seen or heard of it elsewhere, so I have no idea where she learned it. Maybe she made it up?

    Sally Odgers

  5. “Cats sleep anywhere” (Farjeon)
    “Softly, silently now the moon” (De La Mare)
    “Where ever i am there’s always Pooh” (this was a party piece with John, when we were first married. He was Pooh, of course) (Milne)
    “Has anybody seen my mouse?” (Milne)
    “The walrus and the carpenter were walking hand in hand” (Carroll)
    “Good morning, I’m known as Sam” (Doug McLeod)

    In fact, i can remember any number. Some of them are actually not children’s but i learnt them as a child (“I wandered lonely as a cloud…”). Do kids still learn poetry ‘by heart’? What a lot of pleasure they miss if not! These poems all rhyme though, which is an interesting observation. i guess it’s the wit of the rhyme that kids love and which maybe makes them memorable, even to adults…

    Virginia Lowe

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