Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Rockin' Your ABC's


My alphabet starts with this letter called yuzz. It's the letter I use to spell yuzz-a-ma-tuzz. You'll be sort of surprised what there is to be found once you go beyond 'Z' and start poking around!" -Dr. Seuss

There is probably no more familiar poetry form than the ABC. These poems, based on the alphabet of any particular language, can take many forms. Commonly termed, the abecedarian, this poetry genre takes its structural architecture, by definition, from the letters of the alphabet. Usually, the poem begins with the first letter of the alphabet and then builds successively, in order, moving through the alphabet from A to Z (i.e., in English).

Early Semitic ABC poems abounded, appearing in religious Hebrew poetry, for example, which centered around sacred practices as early as 1000 B.C. The Hebrew Bible contains many examples of abecedarian poetry. Probably the most acclaimed of these comes from Psalm 119 where the poem is broken up into twenty-two eight-line stanzas, each representing, in order, a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Here is a brief extraction from the poem (NIV Version) where the initial words of the stanza (translated here in English) begins with the corresponding Hebrew letter, as shown in italics below:

Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
Who walk according to the law of the Lord.
Blessed are they who keep his statutes...

How can a young man keep his way pure?
By living according to your word.
I seek you with all my heart...

Do good to your servant, and I will live;
I will obey your word.
Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things...

In the fifth century, a fascinating abecedarian poem appeared by Coelius Sedulius, a Latin poet, who wrote an ABC to be used as an adjunct to worship. The poem, entitled A solis ortus cardine (click here to view both Latin and English translation) was later transcribed and converted into a hymn by Martin Luther, in 1524.

An early ABC poem in the English language is Chaucer's "La Priere de Nostre Dame" (The Prayer of our Lady), or more commonly dubbed "Chaucer's ABC" (Click here for complete text). The poem is an adaptation of a prayer from an illusory French poem entitled, "La Pelerinaige de la vie humaine," ca. 1330. Here is a link to view a leaf from the original manuscript. The poem is noteworthy as Chaucer blurs the lines of what was considered orthodox 'clerical' poetry using a sensual courtly imagery of love, a practice that became commonplace in medieval poetry.

The earliest primers for children appeared in England in the fifteenth Century, a period predating modern educational institution, and an era without the benefit of materials and resources that later advanced learning so rapidly throughout the Industrial Revolution. These books were termed hornbooks, because they were covered with a thin layer of horn as a protective coating. The hornbook usually came with a wooden handle and had as a prominent feature a graphic representation of the alphabet. The hornbook, along with its paper counterpart, the chapbook, which followed in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, often had rudimentary ABC poems as learning instruments for the child.

Probably the most famous American chapbook, the New England Primer, published in Boston, ca. 1688, was full of alphabet rhymes, devices and pictorial teaching devices for children. It soon became a mainstay as a textbook for New Englanders in the eighteenth Century. The New England Primer followed a time-honored tradition used by the early settlers in America using biblical themes and stories as an aid in teaching the alphabet to children. Here is a striking example from the Primer:

In Adam's Fall
We sinned all.
Thy Life to Mend
This Book Attend.
The Cat doth play
And after slay.
A Dog will bite
A Thief at night.
An Eagle's flight
Is Out of sight.
The Idle Fool
Is Whipt at School

William Blake's, London, a poem written in the seventeenth century, deals with the palpable images and sounds of London. One stanza is brilliantly depicted as an acrostic, where the first letters of each word in just one stanza of the poem, spell out the word, "Hear."

How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

Modern ABC poems abound. Perhaps more than any other poets, Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey (more widely known as artist) popularized this form in the twentieth century. Dr. Seuss's ABC appeared in 1963, an alphabet book where each letter is accompanied by a poem and an ABC rhyme, as well as an illustration. Edward Gorey's poem, "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," is a remarkable achievement, made that much more appealing with Gorey's expressionistic and rather macabre sketches. Here is an excerpt.

A is for Amie who fell down the stairs
B is for Basil assaulted by bears
C is for Clara who wasted away
D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh

You can view the whole poem, with illustrations, by clicking here.

Harryette Mullen is a gifted modern poet who has recently explored the abecedarian in a wonderful and complex poem, included in her book, "Sleeping with the Dictionary." In it we find a 47-page poem, "On Earth," a complex ABC poem adhering not only to order in the stanzas, but also in the words themselves. Here is a link to obtain her book and, in following, a short extraction from the poem:

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.

In case you weren't paying attention, that was the letter "L."

Kate Greenaway, a famous nineteenth century English illustrator of children's books, produced a superb alphabet book at the turn of the nineteenth century, entitled, "A Apple Pie; An Old-Fashioned Book." The work begins coyly:

A Apple Pie
B Bit it
C Cut it

It is now in the public domain, and may be easily viewed, poem and illustrations, in their entirety by clicking here.

A fascinating sub-genre of abecedarian poetry is a poem consisting of only the exact number of words in the given alphabet. Thus, for a poem in the English language, there must be only 26 words, each beginning with a letter of the alphabet. Most are built successively from A to Z, but some very creative poems in this form begin with Z and work in the reverse. One of the more acclaimed poems of this type, by Robert Pinsky, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, is entitled simply, ABC. The poem has a brilliant opening, with a memorable snarky two-line aphorism, which presents letters A-J:

Any body can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy

You can watch and hear Pinsky recite his ABC poem on Youtube by clicking here. This is one of the more power-packed readings of twenty-six words of poetry, in my view, you'll ever hear, and it's introduced by Pinsky with a short but edifying explanation of the abecedarian poetry form.

Here is an ABC poem I recently wrote, entitled, not surprisingly, "ABC."


All bright creation

From gaudy heights:

Iridescent jar,
Keening lover,
Magpie nesting on pier.

Queer reproduction,
Subtle triangulation.

Under velvet wings,
Your zen

I have also written several longer ABC poems, including "Animal Alphabet of Collective Nouns" (excerpt below). To view entire poem, click here)

Animal Alphabet of Collective Nouns

"A" is for Apes,
A troop of Apes.
Swinging right over your head.
With parachutes white,
They make quite a sight.
Don't let them land on your bed!

"B" is for Bears,
A sloth of Bears,
Raiding your kitchen for food.
They've eaten the jam,
Are downing the ham,
Could they be any more rude?

Here's an excerpt from another longer ABC poem I wrote:

Zany Alphabet of Creepy Bugs

Black ant, red ant
A huge compound eye,
Six skinny legs,
Can they fly?
I'll tell you a tale
If you keep still.
I have seen red fire ants
That live in Brazil

Big beetle, black beetle
Crawling on the floor,
Don't let him out,
Close the door!
He'll be a fine pet,
Don't think he'll bite.
But he may have buddies
That come out at night.

Dance cricket, sing cricket,
Rub your wings so fast,
Can you not stop?
An hour's passed.
Jumping legs so long,
Springing on me.
If you hop in my hand,
Will I set you free?

You can view the entire poem by clicking here.