Form is one of the great anchors of poetry (of all writing really)–it gives the poet a wall to push against–a surface to stand on. But strict poetic rules can also be downright frustrating, and in extreme cases, they can paralyze a writer’s organic process. This is why it’s important to explore and experiment with many forms–some with meter, some with rhyme schemes, some with repeating patterns–to see which forms inspire your best work, and which forms drain too much of your writerly energy.
One form that allows for a great deal of creative freedom is the abecedarian or “alphabet poem.” This ancient form can be found in sources as varied as the Hebrew Bible (many of the Proverbs and Psalms are in fact Hebrew abecedarians), Chaucer (“An ABC”), and numerous children’s poems by Dr. Seuss. The patterns can vary slightly, but the general rule is to start each word, line, or section of the poem with a letter of the alphabet in standard order. Below is a great example by former American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky:
Any body can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy,
Knowledge, love. Many
Need oblivion, painkillers,
Sweet time unafflicted,
Poets will often arrange an abecedarian as one might expect, starting each line with a new letter. Pinsky, however, breaks lines in surprising ways to soften the alphabet effect. Always feel free to experiment with “rules” in your writing–and find good reasons to break them.
Another form that derives from the abecedarian is the acrostic or “name poem” that became popular in Victorian literature (Edgar Allen Poe wrote several examples). An acrostic follows the same basic principal as an abecedarian, but uses the letters of a word or name in sequence to start each line. Below is a great example by Lewis Carroll. Note that the first letters of the left margin spell the full name of Carroll’s most famous protagonist: Alice Pleasance Liddell.
A Boat, Beneath a Sunny Sky
A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—
Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.
Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?
Form can be a great resource for inspiration! Neither the abecedarian nor the acrostic require any specific pattern of meter, repetition, or rhyme, but when faced with the distressing uncertainty of the blank page, these forms offer the poet–without pretension or didacticism–a place from which to start.
Happy writing!! Need more inspiration? Check out our other prompts here!
Z and J
Zach Matteson (left) and Jeffrey Ricker (right)
Zach Matteson (PRISM’s Poetry Editor) and Jeffrey Ricker (PRISM’s Contest Manager) also facilitate a weekly writing workshop at Green College.