Abecedarian Poetry Form: Master Emotion’s ABCs

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Here’s what the Abecedarian (ABC or alphabet) poetry form is:

An abecedarian poem is another form of an acrostic poem.

Abecedarian poems consist of verses wherein the first letter of each line is a letter of the alphabet in succession.

Abecedarian poetry traces back its roots to as early as the biblical period.

Thus, the earliest forms of abecedarian poems can be found in the Hebrew Bible.

So if you want to learn all about the Abecedarian poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Keep reading!

Abecedarian Poem Type (Simply Explained & Examples)

Forms of Poetry: The Abecedarian

Attractive African American woman writing at the café

Abecedarians are a form of acrostic poetry.

They are also called “abecedarius” or an “abecedary.”

If you pay attention to the word, you’ll notice that it gives away half of its meaning in its structure, with the word quite literally being based on the first four letters of the alphabet (ABeCeDarian).

Whereas the broader definition of ‘acrostics’ refers to any poem in which the first letters or words of lines form some meaningful message, an abecedarian is a more playful variant that directly references the alphabet itself as the message.

Acrostics are already thought of as more of a ‘fun’ poetry style that experiments with structure, but abecedarians take that to the extreme since using the alphabet as a limitation is inherently a very arbitrary limitation.

Acrostics, as a form of poetry, has faced some criticism over the years from poets who feel that poems with such ‘meaningless’ limitations don’t lend themselves to strong narratives or imagery.

This hasn’t stopped abecedarians, and acrostics in general, from being a favorite among casual fans of poetry, especially children.

Detractors will argue that the novelty of an acrostic of any kind wears off quickly, while proponents will argue that a poem’s ability to entertain is a key feature of poetry, both artistically and historically.

Where you fall in that debate is naturally up to you, but abecedarians do have a rich enough legacy to warrant a quick study.

Basic Properties of the Abecedarian

Young woman writing on her notebook with a smile
Rhyme StructureOptional
OriginAt least as old as the Hebrew Bible
PopularityEspecially popular among casual poetry lovers and schoolchildren

How Are Abecedarians Structured?

Spiral blank notebook with pen on blue wooden table.

The most typical structure of an abecedarian simply consists of lines that begin with the successive letters of the alphabet.

This means that the first line will begin with A, the second with B, and so on and so forth, for 26 lines.

There are some other ways to interpret an abecedarian.

One alternate method for writing an abecedarian is to write a 26-word poem in which each word begins with the next letter of the alphabet, but this is much, much less common.

Other methods utilize the variations you might see in other acrostics.

A writer might have each line end with the same letter it begins with or have the line end with the last letter of the alphabet so that the poem covers the alphabet both forwards and backward as the poem progresses.

You could also write a reverse abecedarian, starting at Z as the first letter of the poem and going backward.

Abecedarians, by their very nature, are generally thought of as playful poems.

Any permutation of the structure is generally fair game, so long as the intended patterns are clear enough for the reader to discern.

Some writers of abecedarians have opted to leave out some of the most constrained letters, such as X, or they might make exceptions to the rules, such as allowing the line for X to begin with the prefix “ex” as a substitute for the letter.

This opens up the poem to more possibilities and a potentially more refined narrative since the poet is not left struggling to fit something like “xylophone” or “x-ray” into the poem somehow.

Example of an Abecedarian

Maple leaf in hand.

As the seasons change, the wind
Blows soft over shifting ocean
Currents, flowing freely
Down old and vacant streets

Early signs of tomorrow
Flowers and leaves, vibrant
Green, gorgeous, and glimmering
Havens of the new dawn

If ever the seasons did stall
Just imagine the chaos, the mourning
Kings and queens grieving
Lost in some eternal stagnation

Most fortunate, then, that such misfortune
Never could be so tightly wound
Obstinate seasons do eventually end
Pushed aside by time’s wheels

Quirky bugs come out of hiding
Released from wherever they were
Slithering snakes reappear from their dens
Tethered to their time

Unbind for me the next season
Virtuous in its brevity
Wise in its mysteries

Xenophobia may love winter
Yet it is spring for whom I pine
Zealous to explore anew

The above poem utilizes the most common type of abecedarian, in which every line simply begins with the next letter.

Abecedarians are rarely broken up into stanzas like this, but it might make it easier for the reader to keep track of where they are in the poem.

Take note that while the poem does have a central idea, it seems to represent itself in fragmented thoughts and slivers of imagery, instead of following a concrete moment-to-moment narrative.

This is typically the best approach to an abecedarian, as it reduces the pressure on the poet to make everything “work” and allows for the poem to simply flow naturally.

History of the Abecedarian

Old Jewish religious book

Abecedarians have been around for millennia.

The oldest recorded examples are found in ancient Semitic holy texts, such as the Hebrew Bible, in which it’s believed that they may have been a reflection of the religious beliefs and mysticism surrounding language in general.

The form has traveled from language to language, changing to suit the alphabets in which it is written, which naturally changes the length of the form across languages.

The most historically significant abecedarians are probably the abecedarian psalms associated with early Judaism.

The form, however, would gradually transform across the centuries into a popular form for children’s poetry instead.

While this transition is not well-documented, one major turning point for abecedarians was in the growth of literacy around the 17th century.

For much of human history, reading and writing were mostly exclusive to the upper classes and the clergy, with some obvious exceptions here and there.

The most well-known and respected English abecedarian is likely Geoffrey Chaucer’s An ABC.

That took the form in a radically different direction than what we think of today, writing full octaves that each started with a different letter of the alphabet.

His poem is notably missing octaves for the letters U and W but is nonetheless an impressive example of how extensively you can experiment with the form.

As such, many of the earliest abecedarians were specifically targeted toward the well-educated and the faithful, with topics such as spirituality being more prevalent.

It was the spread of literacy to the middle class that paved the way for abecedarians to become a staple of countless western childhoods.

Tips for Writing an Abecedarian

notebook and pen on wooden table

Start by making yourself comfortable with the idea that a poem should entertain.

The most charming feature of an abecedarian is that it’s refreshing.

Picking out words in such a way that you can create the alphabet in your patterns should be fun and should feel more like playing a game than writing a more formal poem.

This advice is not intended to simply be cute.

It’s genuinely necessary for you to enjoy the process in order for the result to be meaningful.

Your ability to entertain yourself with words will shine through in the finished product and the reader should feel like they’re playing along with you, discovering the words on the page much the same way you discovered them in your head.

Acrostics play with the part of the brain that loves puzzles and so all the best acrostics, including abecedarians, have a way of stimulating the imagination that’s unique and pleasant.

It’s similar to the phenomenon in which you see a loved one’s big goofy grin and can’t stop yourself from smiling along with them. Fun is contagious and abecedarians capitalize on that.

Follow the flow of the poem as you go along, but don’t be afraid to change one or more lines you’ve just finished if it makes it easier to hit the next letter.

Lines that start with a common letter will naturally be easier than letters that start with a rare letter.

So don’t be afraid to rewrite the easy lines over and over, since it’ll go much faster than trying to jump through hoops for a suitable word that starts with Z.

Don’t be afraid of absurdity.

Having the poem take a sudden plot twist involving zippers or zebras at the end might seem like a burden on your beautifully crafted poem, but it will feel like a natural fit if you establish that weirdness from the beginning.

Or you could go the extremist route and decide that you absolutely, positively will write a meaningful elaborate narrative within the ruleset of an abecedarian.

This will, by far, be the hardest way to approach the form, but you will impress people if you can pull it off.

Poet’s Note

Pen lays on paper.

As strange as this may sound, having a feel for what letters are common and uncommon is significant to poetry for various reasons.

Abecedarians and word games can be good ways to build up that sensitivity.

Comprehensive Collection of Poetry Forms: Craft Words Into Art

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