Abecedarian poems go back to an ancient poetic form, with the earliest examples in Semitic and religious Hebrew poetry — in prayers, hymns, and psalms. Psalm 118 in the Hebrew Bible (or 119 by King James numbering), consists of 22 eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Abecedarian poetry
KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - September 17, 2018 - 12:00am

Nine of the 32 poems in the chapbook Songs from My Mind’s Tree by Jonel Abellanosa, published by Clare Songbirds Publishing House in New York, are abecedarian poems, meaning that their lines start with the letters of the alphabet, in proper order.

So Abellanosa has to use the word “Zenith” or “Zeniths” to start the last lines in three of these poems — while the rest have “Zinging,” “Zaniest,” “Zones,” “Zen,” “Zeal,” and “Zinfandel.” Oh yes, they’re all capitalized, as are all the first letters of the other lines.

For words supposed to start with “X,” the poet turns into an artful dodger with “Extend,” “Exfoliate,” “Extolment,” “Exultation,” “Expectations” (used twice), “Exit” and “Expect,” before the final, genuine “Xanthic.” I guess he found no poetic need to use “Xylophone,” “X-ray” or “Xanadu.” “Xenophile” or “Xenophobe” might have been neat.

Abecedarian poems go back to an ancient poetic form, with the earliest examples in Semitic and religious Hebrew poetry — in prayers, hymns, and psalms. Psalm 118 in the Hebrew Bible (or 119 by King James numbering), consists of 22 eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

A medieval example is Chaucer’s “An ABC,” a translation of a French prayer into 23 eight-line stanzas that follow the alphabet (minus J, U, V, and W). In contemporary use, abecedarian poems serve as mnemonic devices and word games for children, such as those written by Dr. Seuss.

The distinguished poet Carolyn Forche has a 47-page poem, “On Earth,” that “adheres to a rigorous form in which alphabetical order guides not only the stanzas, but also the words themselves.” Actually, a sample section of that Forche poem only reminded me of U.S. VP Spiro Agnew’s classic alliteration: “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

A kissing cousin of the abecedarian is the acrostic, which spells out words through the first letter of each line. The most memorable acrostic poem in our literature is Jose “Pete” Lacaba’s “Prometheus Unbound,” which sneaked into Focus magazine’s literary section during Martial Law — with its four stanzas and 23 lines spelling out: MARCOS HITLER DIKTADOR TUTA.

An example of Abellanosa’s abecedarian poems, “Ode to the Sun,” starts:

“Aphelion, as when I’m away brooding or/ Basking, questions like corona. My bones/ Crave strength, your morning flares like/ Dandelions, neighborhood waking with joggers,/ Early sizzling of pans in corner stores. I follow the/ Familiar with rubber shoes, circling like my mind’s/ Gnomon…”

In only the first seven lines, the reader is treated to “precious” words like “Aphelion” and “Gnomon.” Notable is the tendency to string up phrases that appear unrelated or forced, just to fulfill the alphabetical obligation. On the downside as well is questionable line-cutting that allows for ending a line with the connective “or” and the article “the.” These stand out even more awkwardly — even as part of run-on lines — since they precede a word that starts out with a capitalized letter.

In fairness, the imagery that pictures a community flexing its early-morning rituals makes up for the technical deficits. Still, it’s difficult to appreciate the merging with solar features (inclusive of “basking” and “corona’), given the gnomic quality of staccato phrases.

An inescapable verdict is that abecedarian poems remain as novelty exercises in the field of poetry, absent natural lyrical flow or even the fluid tension built up outside the confines of rigid pigeonholing that only follows a chronological letter-order. In brief, there are myriad other verse forms that enforce discipline without having to give up on fluidity.

Thankfully, Abellanosa proves that he is also capable of loosening up while serving a concentrated feast of ideation and imagery, as with the opening lines from “Flute for His Newborn”:

“He asked for the bamboo’s benevolence — / The plea for forest spirits to hear — sawing/ With remorseful care, the form’s slender/ Whisper sending joy of discovery farther…” 

Or: “… When winds/ Stopped blowing, he descended/ And traveled for miles to the city/ To find the kind of varnish/ That deepens the sun’s shadows.// If the boy picks it up one day/ He’ll know it pines for his breathing./ He’ll have his own forest rhythms,/ Or the miles of wind-raked fields/ In his heart every son is born with.”

I like best the full-fledged “Piano,” which deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

“Papa paid for my lessons with the only lady/ Who ever slapped my hand with a ruler:/ I wasn’t supposed to play the piece that fast,/ My hands so small I had to catch up, turning/ Chords into arpeggios, false impression of speed./ She should have heard how I improvised./ She was so strict I played the Fur Elise like my/ Fingers were birds flying to her thick glasses.// Perhaps when drunk papa saw me a pianist,/ Melody engraver who might halt passersby,/ Listeners keeping their hearts in brocaded boxes./ Then my training stopped when he stopped/ Leaving the house when his sobriety stopped./ He had to sell it or we would stop schooling./ My brother and I, we would starve. The truck/ That took it lumbered like a groggy box, the space/ It left in our house I still keep in my heart.” 

Here the personal memory is crafted as an honest, humbling narrative that leads adroitly to memorable irony and poignance.

Jonel Abellanosa resides in Cebu City. “His poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Dwarf Stars and The Best of the Net Awards.” This collection is his fourth chapbook, with a full-length collection, “Multiverse,” forthcoming from the same publisher later this year.   

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