Definition: An abecedarian poem is one in which verses or words begin with the successive letters of the alphabet.
I recently wrote my first abecedarian poem, and while I enjoyed the process, I nearly
stalled out when I got to the letter X. Hardly any useful words begin with X. My crumbling, 1965 edition of Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary contains just one page of X words.
Although the less common X words (xeric, xylophagous, xylotomy) intrigued me, none of them worked in my poem. Neither did the more common (x-axis, X chromosome, xenophobia, Xmas, X-ray). I wasn’t successful with using the letter by itself, as in “X marks the spot” or “x’d out.”
Just for fun, I took a look at my German dictionary and found exactly thirteen words that started with X, including “X-Beine” (knock-kneed) and “x-mal” (any number of times). The Spanish dictionary had forty-five, including “xocoyote,” (the first son; Mexican term) and “xeca” (the head of a person; Guatemalan term). Interesting, but still not useful.
In order to write a line that made sense in the poem, I did what a lot of other poets have done: cheat. Instead of using a word that starts with X, I used a word that sounded like it starts with X: “ecstasy.” Most words that start with X – i.e., xenophobe, Xerox, xylophone – sound like they start with Z. Therefore, is using an X word that doesn’t sound like it starts with X also cheating? Or is it more authentic to use a word that sounds like it starts with X, even if it doesn’t?
I’ve included some examples of poets who have conquered the X problem, using creative word-pruning (Natalie Diaz), inventive compound words (Laura Richardson), or the proper use of obscure words (Luisa Igloria).
In Natalie Diaz’s “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation,” she writes “’xactly,” using a portion of the word “exactly” but keeping the X in the right place:
Truth is, there may be angels, but if there are angels
up there, living on clouds or sitting on thrones across the sea wearing
velvet robes and golden rings, drinking whiskey from silver cups,
we’re better off if they stay rich and fat and ugly and
’xactly where they are—in their own distant heavens.
In *“Armadillo Highway,” Laura Richardson writes “X-signing” when describing the character of a despicable lout named Jackson: “…Shoot! Old / X-signing, whiskey-drinking coot.”
In “Another Argument For Trying To Live, Even In These Times,” a double abecedarian, Luisa Igloria writes, “Here,
xiathum expands, overtaking the room, the house, the street, the town.”
And in “Road Trip, ca. 1980,” a reverse abecedarian:
Zigzagging up the mountain road, wonder why
you see only sparse cover of pine— dry
xylem of plants that knew more succulence
when waterfalls cleft rocks and veiled our
vision briefly as buses veered close in their
A list of forty words that start with X from Mental Floss.
For more poetry using the abecedarian form, I recommend The Alphabet of Desire by Barbara Hamby. Hamby is also the author of the chapter “The Abecedarian Corset” in Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry, eds. Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen.
*from Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry, p. 174