Monday, April 25, 2016

The Acrostic: A Poetry Prompt From Instructor Nan Fry

In celebration of National Poetry Month, The Writer’s Center is sharing prompts from current and former instructors. This installment includes a prompt from Nan Fry. 

In an acrostic, the first letters of each line--read downward--form a word or phrase.

An ancient form, the acrostic was used in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin literature. Some psalms in the Hebrew Bible are acrostics.

I was first introduced to the form by Rod Jellema in a poetry workshop at The Writer’s Center and am grateful to him. I like using it in teaching because it combines elements of formal and free verse. The spine of the beginning letters on the left provides a formal constraint, while the rest of each line can develop freely. The restriction of those first letters often leads the poet to some surprising words or phrases. For instance, here is an acrostic by a junior high school student:

Flying through the sky
In brilliant
Reds, greens and yellows
Everyone gazes upward
With amazement
Over the moon they
Run through the sky
Kicking the

I doubt she would have come up with those terrific last lines without the formal pressure of her initial letters.

Here is another acrostic, written by Susan Grafield Long in one of my workshops:

In the wood-cracking, open-window, raccoon-screeched
Night, middle of, where mistakes come knocking,
Smug-sure of payment, I roll and pitch on a witchy
Ocean, holding tight to a slick mast, calling out for a
Mote of sleep, so that in the bite of bright morning
None of this turmoil will trail me in my must-do’s,
I will not recall the barks of the old oak armoire
And the snaps of the heart-pine floor boards—
Crowded gangplanks moaning under faint footfalls.

When I asked her, she said she thought the pressure of the initial word let her come up with “a/Mote of sleep,” a wonderful phrase. She also said that for her, “surprise comes from having to fit the form. The same is true when I work with syllabics—the concentration forces invention."

If you like, try an acrostic. You may use your name or any other word you like. I’d suggest concrete words rather than abstractions, words like river, pebble, thunder, wrinkle, mud, camera, rodent. Your poem doesn’t need to be directly “about” the word you’ve chosen though you may find that it informs the poem in mysterious and surprising ways. Once you’ve written it, put it away for a while, and when you go back to it, decide whether to keep the form or not.

Nan Fry, Ph.D. (Yale University), is the author of two books of poetry: Relearning the Dark and Say What I Am Called. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, anthologies, and textbooks. She received an EdPress Award for excellence in educational journalism and taught at the Corcoran College of Art + Design for over 20 years.

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