Abecedarian: Poetic Form
PostedSeptember 01, 2004
The abecedarian is an ancient poetic form guided by alphabetical order. Generally each line or stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet and is followed by the successive letter, until the final letter is reached. The earliest examples are Semitic and often found in religious Hebrew poetry. The form was frequently used in ancient cultures for sacred compositions, such as prayers, hymns, and psalms. There are numerous examples of abecedarians in the Hebrew Bible; one of the most highly regarded is Psalm 118 (or 119 by King James numbering). It consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chaucer's "An ABC" is an excellent medieval example of the form. He crafted his translation of a French prayer into twenty-three eight-line stanzas that follow the alphabet (minus J, U, V, and W).
Abecedarian poems are now most commonly used as mnemonic devices and word games for children, such as those written by Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey. However, there are fine contemporary examples by Carolyn Forché in Blue Hour, and Harryette Mullen in Sleeping with the Dictionary. In Forché’s forty-seven page poem, "On Earth," she adheres to a rigorous form in which alphabetical order guides not only the stanzas, but also the words themselves. For example, she writes:
languid at the edge of the sea
lays itself open to immensity
leaf-cutter ants bearing yellow trumpet flowers
along the road
left everything left all usual worlds behind
library, lilac, linens, litany.
A form derived from the abecedarian is the acrostic, which spells out names or words through the first letter of each line.