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Traditionally, the opening lines of most formal poetry followed a strict convention – every new line began with a capital letter. This stemmed from poetry’s roots in stentorian literary traditions and the desire to lend poems a dignified, elevated tone. The uniformity of capitalization created a sense of order and gravitas on the page.

However, as poetry reinvented itself through modern and postmodern movements like Imagism and free verse, many poets rebelled against this and other constraints of rhyme, meter, and punctuation. Line capitalization became one of the technical formatting rules routinely disregarded, especially in free verse works striving for a more naturalistic flow and cadence.

Take for example this excerpt from Rae Armantrout’s poem “Desiring Resonance”:

“the spines
fineing into
impossible
flourishes”

Here the lines commence in lower case, removing any artificial separations and allowing the language to unfurl organically. The lack of capitalization is wholly appropriate to the poem’s abstract, unconventional imagery.

So do any firm rules still apply? In contemporary free verse, capitalization is largely a choice left up to the individual poet’s preference and artistic vision. Some maintain the traditional convention, others opt for lowercase line openings, and some apply a mixture or seek out capitalization for specific emphasis or effect within lines. Poets of today have rebelled against unquestioned inviolable rules in favor of an expansive creative freedom.

In essence, while opening line capitalization was once a resolute protocol, that is no longer the case. The dynamic range of modern poetry ultimately champions the power of the individual poet’s own motivations over predetermined universal formatting strictures.

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