A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins
(excerpt, “Vowels,” Arthur Rimbaud)
Sometimes poets are gigantic kids in sheets with eyeholes who appear at your door on Halloween. They stand, gawky and silent, pillow case in hand, hoping you won’t ask them how old they are. Which you do, of course: How the hell old are you? You can’t help yourself. Still, you drop a Snickers in the giant kid’s bag.
The first live adult practicing poet I ever met (she’d just hopped dramatically off a swing at the local playground) produced a sheet of paper and a #2 and wrote the entire alphabet down the left side of the page, just like my kindergartner, then proceeded to compose a poem on the spot—an instant listy riff, from Adorable to Zenobia. For me?—how charming! I thought. And so I got hooked on that ubiquitous, infamous, deliciously peculiar phenomenon known as the ABECEDARIAN. Or Abecedarius, or Abecedarium—take your pick, poets and pals. Whatever you call the schema itself, you’re about to approach that mysterious bridge between right brain and left, to illumine symbols tucked deep in our DNA. You’re about to tase and be tased by the alphabet.
(Edward Gorey’s classic, The Gashly Crumb Tinies, 3:04 mins)
Some poets decide to make their entire book an abecedarian (Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary). Some dismantle the alphabet only to mantle it again (Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life). Some play with pop culture (Conway/Crosbie/Trinidad’s Phoebe 2002.) And some turn their abecedarians on their heads and start with Z, or create (whew!) double abecedarians, waving their poet’s license, going all Oz on us:
Over the Rainbow
(a double abecedarian)
Aeons of apes get stomach aches because
black-and-white sight can’t see ripeness. The sky
changes gradually. Primate eyes coax
dull gray into light blue. First to see how
Eden’s apples blushed like flesh, ape-girl Eve
fed all of us from God’s green grove. Can you
guess who saw the first pale rainbow? A rust-
honey monkey named Dorothy. Ancients,
in their mosaics, lacked purple. They were
just unable to see it. An opaque
kaleidoscope with gaps, our vision’s map
lags behind birds, bees, fish, rats. Half the zoo
moves through an ultraviolet realm un-
known except by UV lens or a storm
on the way: lime clouds, blood grass, gray hail. Hell
posing for its pink-lit portrait. A crack
quivers in the window. A dazed bluejay
reverts to gray. Colors bleed from my eyes,
stick to my cheeks like rainbow syrup. Bosch
triptych landscape minus sinners. A gong
undulates. Stars shift across a red gulf.
Evolution revokes rainbows from some
white males, 8% of them color blind.
Xanthic, now, the Golden Age. Myopic,
yawning, I water the lawn, the rhubarb.
Oz fades. My hose’s rainbow dims, goes gray.
—Michael Kriesel (previously published in North American Review)
Some alphabeteers zero in on a beloved letter and exploit the possibilities. They’re cartoonists, digital artists, font junkies, alphafreaks. Judy Natal scavenged letters from junkyards in New York and LA for years before setting them against the landscape of Joshua Tree National Park. Here’s E (from her series, EarthWords).
And here’s poet and visual artist Paula Kolek with a section from her engaging “personal R-chive,” a coming-of-age story inspired by the hundreds of fonts she’s collected.
Perhaps you yourself have tried an abecedarian. Got a favorite letter? I’m curious—how did you personally handle the X-Factor? Did you resort to X-Ray or Xylophone when you got to the letter X? Couldn’t think of anything else? Don’t feel bad. It’s a well-known fact that X is the hardest letter to get poetic with.
(Sesame Street Letter X Lecture, 0:59 secs.)
In fact, X has been annoying folks for years.
Next time you have to spell xylophone, use a Z. When someone says, “Hey that’s wrong,” say, “If you think that’s wrong, you need to get your head Z-rayed.” It’s like X wasn’t given enough to do, so they had to promise it more: “Okay, you don’t start a lot of words, but we’ll give you a co-starring role in tic-tac-toe. And you will be associated with hugs and kisses. And you will mark the spot. And you will make writing Christmas easier. And incidentally, you will start xylophone. Are you happy, you fuckin’ X?!”
—Comedian Mitch Hedberg
According to Peter Lamborn Wilson in his abecedarian commentary on Rabbi M.-A. Ouaknin’s Mysteries of the Alphabet, the actual real usurped last letter of the alphabet is “(secretly)” X. When I heard that, as you can imagine, I stopped the presses on this big girl and felt totally glittery. According to Wilson, X is “the ladder of swords that only the inspired shaman can climb in bare feet. The way up & out…of abstraction & alienation & into reality—that is, spirit & matter as one. X the unknown.”
So crack open that letter X, people, that ineffable, that ladder out. Let it loose your imagination. Try Xanthic (Kriesel), Xerxes (Gorey), X-Sex (Mullen), Xiphias (adapted from the Greek for sword(fish) by comic book artist Mike Wendt):
Or try a crafty metaphor within a visual (from Isaac Cates):
Credits, Links, and Fun for Later:
Animated Gashleycrumb Tinies by Matt Duplessie (Warning: Not for the squeamish)
Letter X Song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqzvhxN88Zg&feature=related (32 seconds)
Patti LaBelle Sings “How I Miss My X” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsGbqPp4pmU (3:03 minutes)
Rimbaud’s “Vowels” http://www.mag4.net/Rimbaud/poesies/Vowels.html
Michael Kriesel http://bookthatpoet.com/poets/krieselm.html
Judy Natal http://www.judynatal.com/
Paula Kolek’s work (all four parts) at Euphemism: http://english.illinoisstate.edu/euphemism/issues/vol_5/issue%201/selfportrait_kolek.htm
Mitch Hedberg (1968-2005) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggOdTarlYWY (6:38 minutes)
Isaac Cates’ and Mike Wenthe’s little abecedarii http://satisfactorycomics.blogspot.com/2008/06/two-little-abecedarii-june-2008.html
Abecedarium NYC http://abecedariumnyc.com/
Abecedarian help http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5767
Michael Kriesel’s poem and all contemporary images used with permission of poets and artists.
Maureen Seaton, March 1, 2011