What is an Acrostic Poem?

An examination of the history, form and use of the Acrostic; a style of written poetry that hides a secret.

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Acrostic poems are ones where the lines are used to spell out hidden words or phrases. Traditionally, this is accomplished by using the first letter of each line—however, some use the last letter, or even a letter that falls at a certain point in a line.

History

As it is based on a relatively simple idea, acrostic poems have a long history. In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Lamentations (a collection of poetic laments for the destruction of Jerusalem) used it in alphabetical form.

Early Christians would use the acrostic iesous christos theou yios soter (Greek for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour) to spell ICHTHYS (Greek for fish).

In the medieval period, poets would use the form to spell their name, or that of their patron, or perhaps the title of the poem. The Middle High German poet Rudolf von Ems would use acrostics of his name to open all of his great works.

During the Renaissance, it was common to use the form to hide secret messages. Whilst the relevant letters were once elaborated and made more ornate to draw the eye to the word, it became common to hide the word in otherwise innocuous pieces of writing, transforming them into acrostics. More advanced codemakers would push the form, using letters besides the initial to encode their message or write their message in reverse.

Form

A perfect acrostic poem is considered one in which all the lines fit the same metre; however, this has never been the only way acrostics appear. Imperfect acrostics are far more common.

What initially seems like a simple word game can in fact become hugely challenging. For example, the poet William Browne used the idea of Acrostics in his poem ‘Behold, O God!’ By highlighting letters in different ways, he formed three crosses throughout the poem. The three crosses spelled out three quotes from the Gospels.

Acrostic poetry can be used to spell words at the end of the sentences instead, creating a variation that is more precisely called a Telestic poem. A poem can also use both methods, with the first letters forming an acrostich and the last letters the telestich.

Use

Because of the form’s relative simplicity, the acrostic can be ignored as a serious form of poetry. Many of us found the form in school, taught in the earliest English classes. It is perhaps because of this early exposure that many poets feel the form is an overly-simplistic one.

I would encourage people not to ignore it, however. Though I will admit to finding acrostic mostly meaningless, it can be coupled with skills developed in other forms of poetry. Approaching an acrostic along with an understanding of rhyme, metre, or sound-play can free the poet. It’s funny how restriction sometimes does this, and treating the acrostic as a rule more than a form can bring about new possibilities.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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