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Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

The ABCs of Abecedarians

Genius with Alphabet by Sebald Beham

If you enjoy writing in a form that is both fun and a challenge, then try an abecedarian next. This form of writing is also sometimes called an abecedary. (For an interesting explanation of the differences between the two words see the information here.) The more popular, more common name for this type of writing is abecedarian. Such pieces are often viewed as playful poems, and they are often highly playful and fun to read and write. They can also be serious poems. You’ll see examples of both below.

What’s particularly interesting about them is that the form can take so many different shapes. They can be shaped to fit the categories of poetry, prose poetry, and flash fiction. If you’re hard-working and creative enough, they can even result in an entire book. You’ll see examples of many of the abecedarian shapes below.

The Basic Abecedarian

Whatever name it goes by, the basic abecedarian shows each line or stanza begins with the first letter in the alphabet (A), the second line or stanza begins with the second letter in the alphabet (B), and so on until you’ve included, in alphabetical order, all 26 letters.

An example of this type can be seen in former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s piece titled “ABC” (see the poem here). Another short abecedarian is Tom Disch’s “Abecedary.” This one has a delightful rhyme scheme (See the poem here.)

Reverse Abecedarian

You could also reverse the whole process and start with Z and go back through each letter of the alphabet, in order, until you end the piece with the letter A. An excellent example of this type is in Steve Gehrke’s “Reverse Abecedarian Prayer.” (See the piece here )

Another example is Truman Hayes’ piece that begins with Z and ends with A. (See it here.)

Double Abecedarian

Or you could write a double abecedarian. In this form, the A, B, C, etc. at the beginning of each line would also be used at the end of each line. For example: “Alexandra is not Aurora, nor is she Athena” shows the beginning and ending of the line ends with “A.” You’d do the same with B, and C, and so on. An example of this type is Dominique Fitzpatrick O’Dinn’s “New Order Poem.” It shows A-Z down the left side of the piece, and A-Z down the right side too. (See it here.)

Reverse Double Abecedarian

Or you could make it even more challenging by writing this version of a double abecedarian. Down the left side the first letters of each line would read, in order, A through Z. And on the right side, the last letter of each line would read, in reverse alphabetical order, Z through A. See Julie Larios’ interesting reverse double abecedarians titled “On the Writing of the Double Abecedarian” and “A Night on the Town.”( See both here.)

Short Abecedarians That Are Also Other Forms

Harold Nemerov’s piece, “A Primer of the Daily Round,” is not only an abecedarian but is also a sonnet. And quite a story. (See poem here .)

John Hegley’s “What a poem’s not” is an amusing list poem that playfully lists all the things a poem is not. It’s also an abecedarian form with each sentence containing a letter of the alphabet, in order. (See poem here .)

Prose Poem Abecedarians

Dominique Fitzpatrick-O’Dinn wrote a lengthy abecedarian about Hammer and Taft, and the work is in prose poetry form and sequence. (See it here.) In this case, each paragraph begins with a letter in order from A to Z.

Sue Walker’s “ABCing” is also in the form of prose poetry. (See it here.)

Various Interesting Abecedarians

“Abecedarian with sexual tension” by Emily Corwin (See poem here .)

“Hummingbird Abecedarian” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (See poem here.)

“Abecedarian for the Dangerous Animals” by Catherine Pierce (See poem here.)

“Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” by Natalie Diaz (See poem here.)

“Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination Before a Diagnosis Can Be Determined” (After Natalie Diaz) by Torrin A. Greathouse (See poem here.)  

“A Poem for S.” by Jessica Greenbaum  (See poem here.)

“Abecedarian after border speeches” by Nilufar Karimi and Eliseo Ortiz (See piece here.)

Even Longer Abecedarians

Abecedarians can also be much longer. For instance, Carolyn Forché wrote a 47-page abecedarian poem titled “On Earth,” which is included in her book, Blue Hour. (See an excerpt here.)

The term “abecedarian” can also apply to Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary. In that fascinating collection the chapter titles make use of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, in order. (See the table of contents here.)

An Abecedarian Composed of Mini Essays

Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged,” is composed of twenty-six micro essays and uses each letter of the alphabet as the starting point for each essay. (See the work here.)

A Full Book Abecedarian and Fibonacci Mathematical Sequence

According to Web Del Sol’s review of books, Inger Christensen’s alphabet (translated from the Danish) is “a poetic masterpiece.” The reviewer also warns that “it’s not for the weak of heart.” “The theme of the work is one of teeming life versus utter destruction.”

The book is composed of 14 sections and begins with the first letter of the alphabet, up to N. There’s not a single period used in the entire book either. What’s also unique and even more challenging is that the number of verses in each section is determined by Fibonacci’s mathematical sequence. As the reviewer points out, the intensity increases as the length of the sections increase. (See an excerpt here.)

Also Explore Abecedarians in History

Before ending this essay, it’s good to realize that the form is nothing new. It goes far back in history. Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) wrote one, minus a couple of letters, titled “An ABC (The Prayer of Our Lady)” (See it here.)

There are also several examples in the King James Bible. One can be found in Psalms 119. The piece consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (See it here.) Another example can be seen in Proverbs 31:10-31. (See here.)

Edward Lear, 1812- 1888, wrote at least two well-known abecedarians. Those poems are his “Nonsense Alphabet” (see it here) and his “Alphabet Poem” (see it here.) Both are a delight for children and adults to read.

There are many more examples of abecedarians in history.

Abecedarians are Habit Forming

The abecedarian, with the many fascinating shapes it can take, is a challenging form of writing that works well with a writer’s creative imagination. They are challenging, fun to write, and (be forewarned) they’re also highly addictive. You likely won’t be able to stop with writing just one.

About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto
twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L. Pamelyn Casto’s new book Flash Fiction: Alive in the Flicker (A Portable Workshop), a new release from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press, is available now on Amazon.

Image: Genius Surrounded by a Banderole Showing the Alphabet by Hans Sebald Behan (1500-1550). Engraving as print ornament/architecture. 1 3/4 x 3 1/8 inches. 1542. Public domain.

GIF: Flag Semaphore Animation by Joshi 1983. Digital image. By free license.

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