What is an Acrostic Poem?
One of the first forms of poetry many children learn to write involves spelling out the subject vertically on the page and using each letter to start a new line. The result is known as an acrostic poem, and can range from a very basic description of the subject to an extremely intricate long-form ode or epigram. Several Biblical psalms are actually acrostic poems, since each line begins with the next letter of the Hebrew or Greek alphabet. American poet and author Edgar Allan Poe once wrote an acrostic poem dedicated to a woman named Elizabeth, while British author Lewis Carroll used the full name of Alice Liddell to begin each line of the last chapter of one of his long-form poems. An acrostic poem does not necessarily have to rhyme or follow any particular poetic form, but it should describe or allude to the subject formed by the vertical opening letters.
A very simple acrostic poem might used the word kid as its subject, for example:
The individual lines of an acrostic poem may also describe the subject in greater detail:
Trainer of fresh young minds,
Educator of tomorrow's leaders,
A friendly face every morning,
Challenges students to reach higher,
Helps every child learn new skills,
Eager to see a class pass the test,
Ready to answer every one's questions
This is the kind of writing assignment an instructor may give students in order to learn how to write an acrostic poem. A job title such as "truck driver" or "policeman" is first written out vertically, then the student will think of descriptive words beginning with each letter. An acrostic poem can simply contain a few descriptive words, or it can become a very formal, rhyming poem or free verse poem using the initial letters as a starting point. Some student writers may find it easier to start writing a descriptive line until he or she can use the next letter in the subject as a new line. The challenge of an acrostic poem lies in finding enough descriptive words about the subject to fill out all of the letters.
More advanced acrostic poems can use the subject letters more than once. In a double acrostic poem, each line begins and ends with the same subject letter. A simple double acrostic poem might look like this:
Creates nothing but havoc,
Attacks imaginary lasagna,
Tears up the backseat.
There are examples of acrostic poems which not only use the subject letters at the beginning or end of each line, but also in the middle. An acrostic poem may also spell out other familiar words associated with the subject, such as working the words nurse and patient into an acrostic poem about a doctor, for example. Elaborate acrostic poems often contain hidden words and phrases within the text as a form of code or secret message. These hidden phrases can generally be discovered by reading the individual letters of the acrostic poem vertically. Historically, acrostics have been used to deliver sensitive messages, since censors rarely read the "letters to home" vertically.
Don’t forget that acrostic poems are especially helpful for memorizing a list of things. Make a poem out of the first letter of each thing you want to remember and if you can recall the poem you should be able to recall the list. If you’ve ever played an instrument and had to learn to read sheet music, you might remember “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge”, or EGBDF, the notes on the lines of the treble clef.
I think acrostic poems are usually thought of as “poems for kids” because they’re so simple but there has been some very clever usages of acrostic poems over the years. My favorite example is in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, where the final chapter spells out Alice’s (from Alice In Wonderland) full name.
Writing an acrostic poems is a good way of imposing constraints on your writing which can help to get the creative juices flowing. A lot of people seem to think that to be creative you need to have unlimited freedom but I think the opposite is actually true; when confronted with a blank page it’s hard to know how to get started.
There are lots of examples of this from history, like how Miles Davis wrote Kind of Blue without using a single chord, or Dr. Suess taking up his publishers bet that he couldn't write a book using only fifty different words, which resulted in Green Eggs and Ham.
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