The Abecedary Form / Carolyn Forche

The Form: I wanted to share here some thoughts on my experiments with the form of the abecedary. An abecedarium (or abecedary) is originally an inscription consisting of the letters of an alphabet, listed in order. Abecedaries were often practice exercises, teaching aids, but also developed as an ancient poetic form guided by strict alphabetical order. The earliest examples are Semitic, found in religious Hebrew poetry and the form has been used in various cultures for prayers, hymns, and psalms. Psalm 118 (or 119 by King James numbering) consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chaucer’s An ABC is a medieval example of the form. Some abecedaries found in the Athenian Agora appear to have been left deliberately incomplete and the imperfection of these examples may have had a magical or ritual significance.


For those who have come across this form in contemporary poetry at all, it was probably (as in my case) through the poem called ‘On Earth’ in Carolyn Forche’s Blue Hour (Bloodaxe, 2003). I reviewed the book in some bewilderment at the time (see below) but have since come to see it more favourably. Forche herself says: “Gnostic abecedarian hymns date from the 3rd century AD. Along with Christian and Buddhist texts, they were recovered from small towns on the northern fringe of the Taklamakan Desert, early in the 20th century”. She also links the form with the idea of the pleroma, defined as the totality or fullness of God’s creation, the One. Over the 46 pages of ‘On Earth’, she adheres rigorously to the form in which alphabetical order guides not only the stanzas, but also the words opening every single line:

languid at the edge of the sea
lays itself open to immensity
leaf-cutter ants bearing yellow trumpet flowers along the road
left everything left all usual worlds behind
library, lilac, linens, litany says that abecedaries are now more commonly used as mnemonic devices and word games for children such as those written by Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey. A derivative form is the much more familiar acrostic.

From my 2003 ReviewThe book contains 11 pieces in 65 pages, 46 of which are taken up with the long poem ‘On Earth’ and phrases do echo throughout the poems so there is a sense of unity to the whole. For the most part, Forche writes by assembling fragments and images, often without clear syntactical or narrative connections to surrounding lines. The reader experiences the verse as successive waves (lines stretch across the page and usually come in twos or threes), or as threads floating disconnectedly, but creating a striking impression of beauty. Forche’s obscurity comes more from an unshakeable confidence in her project, in her voice, in her idiosyncratic style and in her subject, largely concerned with the significance or recovery of the past in the present moment.

My difficulty with what Forche does is that all kinds of experience seem to be subjected to the same treatment, so that in the end the reader swims through an undeniably glittering, but rather gloopy, phenomenological soup in which “a city a thousand years” has the same weight as “a field of birds roasted by the heavens”, which has an equivalence to “a sudden reticence that seizes the heart”. All of the material – several deaths, the madness of a grandmother, a mother’s life, early years with a child, Chernobyl, some war-torn territories – is recorded with a swooning sensitivity, a recurring softness of diction and a penchant for grammatical inversion which seems to strain after the poetic: “In the blue silo of dawn, in earth-smoke and birch copse, / where the river of hands meets the Elbe.”

These doubts are brought to a head in the ambitious ‘On Earth’ which is (to quote the blurb) “a transcription of mind passing from life into death, in the form of an abecedary, modelled on ancient gnostic hymns”. The form is an alphabetical sequence and this additional random factor only increases this reader’s sense of a steamrollering of experience to ensure a smooth poetic passage. There is no doubt that Forche can produce some stunning images and when she strings them together in more conventional ways and the reader can hold on to her coat-tails, you can see why her reputation is so high in the U.S.

My interest in abecedaries: Has grown with my interest in looser forms of verse (I have given up on punctuation in most of my own poems these days) alongside a more-than-philosophical sense of the truth of the wholeness of being, reflecting Forche’s idea of the pleroma. This – see Rilke, see the Daodejing – is a condition impossible to be caught in the net of more conventional language and poetic form. Abecedaries encompass the whole alphabet (at least in theory – though I like the idea of the deliberate imperfection; perfection belonging only to God). An abecedary can therefore be seen as an appropriate poetic gesture (futile for sure) towards a unified field, an encompassing of everything, the only true state.


The Material: But the unified field, for an individual human being, must be regarded with some perspective; if this was not the case we would indeed be seeing with the eye of God, with his/her distance and utter impersonality. I wanted to write affective texts. I wanted my abecedary to be (paradoxically) limited. I wanted people in it; even a narrative of events. But all still subject to the demands of the form. I realised I did indeed have some suitable materials to hand. I had been asked by Professor Lidia Vianu, of University of Bucharest, to assist with the translation into English of several short stories by the relatively unknown Modernist Romanian author, Mihail C Vladescu. He published a collection of eight stories, In Retreat, almost 100 years ago. These are stories written in war-torn Eastern Europe but more significantly, Vladescu forensically portrays the sense of corruption in his society, with materialistic motives and adulterous behaviour most prominent. It seemed to me, and not merely because the centenary of the First World War is still in process around us, that this was material worth working on. I thought Vladescu’s relative obscurity to an English-speaking readership was also an advantage in such an experiment.

The Process: I selected phrases as far as possible randomly from the prose translation. These were then ordered alphabetically (via Excel spreadsheets) and subjected to as little editing as possible, though I have sectioned and created stanzas where it seemed best. Not surprisingly, my abecedaries are incomplete (x and z are more often than not the Persian flaws in the poetic carpet).

The results? Over the next 6 days I will post up the full 7 sections of my abecedary ‘Bathing in the Olt’ (from Vladescu’s original story called ‘Bathing’) and any observations would be welcomed. The text has already appeared in full in Shearsman magazine, 103/4, April 2015.

Click here to see each section posted: #1 / #2 and #3 / #4 / #5 / #6


7 thoughts on “The Abecedary Form / Carolyn Forche

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