Friday, April 23, 2010


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Most poets are pretty good at self-analysis--and since that's the case, most of us already know about the right brain, the left brain, and their specialties. The left hemisphere is apparently the one we call upon for sensible, logical writing--the grocery list, the letter to the editor, the legal brief. The brain's right side, on the other hand, takes over for our flights of fantasy--those astonishing creative leaps we find ourselves taking when we're crafting our poems and stories.

There are, in fact, many books for writers and other creative types that aim to help release the mind from the rigid, rule-bound thinking we associate with the left brain. Both Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, for example, are inspirational guides for writers that I couldn't recommend more enthusiastically.

On the other hand, there might be times when your orderly left brain can serve a purpose beyond its workaday chores. This is particularly true if you think you've been stuck in something of a rut lately. Maybe you can't face writing one more poem about love or politics or rafting down the Wapsipinicon River. Maybe you're ready for a little experimentation, some mental isometrics. This could, in fact, be precisely the right time for you to try bringing your left brain into your creative process, if only to see what happens. It may give your writing just the right jolt.

A few of the routes you can take to that end involve experimenting with three playful but time-tested poetic forms that have absolutely nothing to do with your usual poetic sensibilities. Are you ready?


Acrostic poems have been around for centuries, probably because they're delightfully easy for poets to personalize. The acrostic poem succeeds via the careful arrangement of letters--specifically, the first letter of every line. In an acrostic, the first letter of each line, when read vertically down the page, spells out a name or a phrase relating to the subject. Here's an example that was written by a talented third-grader of my acquaintance, about her cat named Lucy:

Lovely eyes, silky whiskers,
Under your chin a white star,
Compared with every other cat
You know you're prettier by far.
See how it works? The technique allows the subject of the poem to be identified rather sneakily--and perhaps even more effectively than by announcing it in the title.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote several acrostics. You can find another tucked into William Blake's "London." Notice how it makes the scene he is describing even more horrific:

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
Here's a lovely contemporary acrostic from Maryland poet Patricia Valdata:

Black and slender,
Landing on my finger:
A pinky ring of ebony. Others
Climb the anchor line that's
Kinked atop the cooler.
Dragonflies by thousands
Rise from spartina patens
As we walk, their spotted wings
Gilded by the falling sun.
On this island they are very
Numerous, or maybe numinous--
Flying like myriad Tinkerbells,
Leading me to clap my hands and
Yell I believe! I believe! I believe!
Another example, titled "Thank You, Lew," comes from Michael Snider, also of Maryland, who composed it for Lewis Turco, author of the poetry handbook The Book of Forms:

Letting a poem happen may work for
Exceptions prove, that is, they test the
What poets do to make a line or a verse
Is mystifying to everyone but fools,
So do your work: Ignore how others do.

That's not for me. My poems need
Until I found The Book of Forms, their
Ranged from just OK to much, much
Considering that, I have to sing the
Of him whose name begins these grateful
So if you're hoping to inject a little spin, a tribute, or even a booby trap into your next poem, you might try an acrostic. Just for fun.


What's an abecedarian? The answer is in the first three syllables of its name. Pronounced ay-bee-cee-DARE-ian, it's a form that owes its existence to the letters of the alphabet--a, b, c, etc., all the way to z. To be more specific, it's a poem in which the first letter of the words that begin each line spell out the alphabet, in order. Like this:

Any coffee in the house?
Better yet, a slice of bread?
Cereal with milk, or maybe
Doughnut holes instead? [etc.]
The form's popularity is growing, but high-quality examples remain rare. It demands considerable competence on the poet's part, or it could turn into little more than a 26-line list. This, of course, is not at all the point.

What is the point? According to Wisconsin poet Michael Kriesel, who's written dozens of them: "Abecedarians encourage the poet to make wider-than-normal associative leaps between images, ideas, objects. The form has helped my free verse grow, making it more liable to draw fresh, surprising connections."

Here's how Kriesel says he goes about it: "I use a 'frame' when writing these. Down the left-hand side of a few pieces of paper, I write the 26 letters of the alphabet that will eventually start each line. Then I string my narrative, or concept, into the alphabetized format.

"I never start 'cold,'" he adds. "I always have a suitable amount of material to shape into the form. That's when the surprises start, and when I have to be willing to follow sudden turns suggested by a necessary word choice."

He advises poets to have a dictionary on hand and to keep in mind that the lines starting with j, k and q can be particularly challenging. Don't be discouraged, though. As you'll see in his example, you can find creative ways to fit these letters into your poem.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it? A whole new adventure for your left hemisphere, especially if you come up with something as interesting and readable as Kriesel's "Abbey Road":

Apperception. Knowledge tattooed on
brain. Like knowing my left hand's there,
or time's
contemporaneous. Everything
demanding God's attention all at once.
Every bill falls due now. No credit
for the lord of time who floats above the
grooves of linear experience. Old
hippies remember Abbey Road, side 2.
In grooves we live, forced forward. In
dreams we
jump the vinyl wall, travel astrally.
Kept in line by time. The only way we
learn down here. The perfect training
tool. Time
merely measuring matter in motion.
No matter, no time. Just eternity's
ocean, and consciousness, attaining to
pure light's height, looking down on its
cued to every note at once. A burst.
Release. We become lighthouses on a
shore with no sand or water, one at a
time. A light for others to steer towards,
until we're all light. Eternity's not
very long. A winter walk. A movie
where you're frozen between frames,
like slides. You
exit, enter doorways in the air, as
you balance on emptiness, between fields,
zippers jingling a second, stepping

For an even greater cerebral challenge, try a lipogram--a work that deliberately excludes one or more letters of the alphabet. For example, one well-known variety challenges the writer to compose an entire short story without using the letter e.

Poet Mark Zimmermann follows this format even more restrictively by writing lipograms as first-person poems, in the voices of historical or literary characters. A character's name is used as both title and subject--and here's the hard part: Only the letters that occur in the character's name occur in the poem.

For example, a poem about Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) would allow only the letters a, c, d, e, i, k, n, s, t, y, z--but these 11 letters produced, in Zimmermann's capable hands, this poem:

I can't stand it. A dazed intensity kicks in:
statistics can a dynastic state dank
and inane in stasis. Days, days and days ...

desk addicted cases kiss decadent ass
as I edit a candid cease-and-desist attack
and send it in.

Did any die?
Can a decadent statistic die?
A staid and sickened NYT can't edit
If this amazing result tempts you to try a lipogram yourself, Zimmermann advises: "Avoid everything you would when writing 'normally'--cliches, banal sentiments, mixed metaphors and the like. Avoid telegrammatic syntax, condensed spellings ('sd,' 'yr,' etc.), and abbreviations that aren't part of everyday usage. Be aware that exasperation is likely to be one of the first things you'll feel when writing under these constraints. Stick with the challenge. Work it out no matter how long it takes. Finally, be prepared to read and reread your work to make sure that a renegade letter hasn't found its way in."

Are poems written in playful forms like these undeniably contrived? They certainly are. And aren't they pretty daunting? Of course! But that's the point. View them as aerobic exercises for your left brain--and come back to the right brain with a supple and vigorous addition to your body of work.

Marilyn Taylor

Marilyn Taylor, a contributing editor at The Writer, is Wisconsin's poet laureate. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Measure, The American Scholar, The Ledge, Cream City Review and other journals. She is the author of eight collections of poetry, including Subject to Change, which was nominated for the Poets Prize, and a new chapbook titled Going Wrong. Web:

Source Citation
Taylor, Marilyn. "Writing to the letter: experiment with 3 playful forms to take your composition to a new micro-level." The Writer Feb. 2010: 15. Academic OneFile. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.
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