Poem Starter Lines: Is Friendship With Men Like Friendship With Birds?


In my last poetry workshop at LLI (LLIChesterfield.org), I introduced and illustrated poem-starter lines. Using John Drury’s Creating Poetry book, I introduced the topic and provided some of his examples. He informs us that William Blake wrote that imitating the best techniques of the masters is the only way for new poets to be able to create decent poems. Ernest Hemingway said that most writers borrowed from the classic forms while the great writers stole from them. I have no doubt that it is important that all poets should also be good readers of excellent literary writing, including classical and modern poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and even historical narratives.

Using a series of metaphors and similes, Drury writes that an opening line is the “doorway to a poem,” and therefore, it “must be enticing.” A weak opening, he says, puts the reader off. A charged line is “like the ignition” of a car and sets a poem in motion. The starter doesn’t have to be overpowering or flashy but it must draw readers into the landscape. In performing this role, a poem may begin with descriptions, statements, questions, fragments, questions, exclamations, off-hand remarks, images, odd words, imagined moods, or words “dropped out of thin air.” Ancient Greek poets used to open with invocations to the muses, in hopes that they would inspire their works. I mentioned to my workshop participants, that I had struggled with the assignment that I had also given to them – which was to write a poem about a Groundhog. I invited them to create and read their poems on this sharp-toothed rodent in a few days but I still hadn’t written mine. I was stuck on trying to establish the setting of the poem and the exact location where my groundhog would emerge. It wasn’t until I went on an hour-long walk on a chilly evening right before the 2016 Super Bowl that I thought of the inspiration for my opening line and my setting. I also felt the inspiration of the muse as the end lines moved through me. I will save my groundhog poem until the end of this post. Before that, I would like to offer a few opening line illustrations that Drury provided in his book:

  • “A sudden blow. The great winds still” by William Butler Yeats in “Leda and the Swan”
  • “The night sky is only a sort of carbon paper” by Sylvia Plath in “Insomniac.” One participant thought that this means that the sky has been reproduced endlessly throughout eternity. Another suggested that the title implied that the writer had been up all night and deprived of sleep before looking at the sky.
  • “I play pool. I aim toward faces” by Sander McPherson in “Games.” This starter evokes some curiosity to see, at least, what the writer is talking about.
  • “Runs falls rises stumbles on from darkness into darkness” by Robert Hayden in “Rungate.” Several participants thought that the poem emphasizes the fluidity of movement, as there are all action words and no punctuation pauses.
  • “Is friendship with men like friendship with birds?” I did not reveal the poet’s name until I asked participants for their reactions to the starter line. A male participant said that the line meant that men’s friendship is being compared to friendship with birds because birds and men like to flock together. I asked if the revelation that the poem, “Friendship with Men” was written by a woman, Molly Peacock, might change the meaning of the opening line? Virtually everyone nodded in agreement. A woman noted that, to her, the line meant that friendships with men are very shallow. Another woman added that men are often flighty in relationships and that many of them paid as much attention to women’s conversations as birds do. I noted that this line illustrated the importance of trying to decide who is speaking in a poem and who is being spoken to! I didn’t have much to say about the “Birds” line after that colorful comment.


We then read and discussed some of the participants groundhog poems (see my earlier LitChatte.com Blogs).  Afterward, I offered my poem about a  “Triumphant Groundhog.” One participant said that she thought that the opening line helped her to think of the groundhog in a different way: Why would he consider himself triumphant when he emerged from his hole several days after Groundhog Day? Some participants agreed that the image did help draw them into my poem with the expectation that it might answer this question. Hopefully, the opening I imagined will also draw you into my poem on a most curious rodent:


groundhog illustration


“The Triumphant Groundhog” by Murray Ellison – February 2016.

The Triumphant Groundhog emerged from his hole—

Just a few days after his Holiday.

At first, he hoped to retain his anonymity

He didn’t even give a twat whether you Followed him on Twitter.

He’s thumbed his nose at notoriety.

He stopped looking at his Face book

When he read too much about

What others said about his popularity.

Afterall, what groundhog does not have the right to remain silent?

To hear only the words about himself that he wants to hear?

To remain in his hole until after Groundhog Day?

Or, to go back in his hole until the proper opportunity presents itself?

He was never one to mince his words

He’s was never fooled by shifting signs

Cautiously avoided railroads tines

He was just a rock-steady guy, and today he was ready…


The triumphant groundhog emerged from his hole

As six hundred million people screamed in admiration.

He looked up as the coin flipped seven times in Gyration

Before landing face down, and settling on the ground.

Looking around at the admiring crowd of strangers

Gave him all the strength he needed to recover.

The referee shouted loud to protect him from the dangers,

“Panthers go to this side of the field, and Broncos defend the other!”

In one of my next Poetry Workshop poetry Blog, I will discuss how our budding poets responded to my prompt of writing a letter to the world evoking the muse of Emily Dickinson.


Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University in 1973, another one in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University in December 2015, and a previous Doctorate in Education from Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is also a contributing editor of the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and is editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic and meditation teacher. Murray also serves a board member and occasional volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write him at ellisonms2@vcu.edu

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