That is, the Roman alphabet as it's typically used in English. We might look at some of its closest rivals -- the Greek, the Hebrew, the Arabic, and the Cyrillic alphabets -- another time.

1. If poetry is form, then there is much to admire about the form of the alphabet. The classic distinction in the alphabet is that between vowel and consonant, and the alphabet announces this in its first two letters: A, a vowel, is immediately followed -- in a classic case of poetic disjunction -- by B, a consonant. The vowel comes first, and the vowels serve as the landmarks, each one spaced like rest stations along an interminable stretch of highway.

Replacing each string of consonants with the number of consonants being replaced, we get:
A 3 E 3 I 5 O 5 U 5
3:3:5:5:5 -- a strict formula, like counting the syllables in a haiku.* But with a swerve at the end, for the penultimate letter is Y, which is sometimes a consonant, sometimes a vowel. A classic twist during the denouement! And one that causes us to rethink the pattern. Do we lose it, if we treat Y like a vowel? Not at all -- if we reconsider the alphabet as an oral text, and (like in a haiku!) count the syllables instead:
A 3 E 3 I 5 O 5 U 5 Y 1
What is that last letter doing? How does the alphabet end? Well, remember, we're reading it aloud now -- and we discover that not only is Y's status as a vowel or consonant ambiguous, but Z's status as a pronounced letter is also ambiguous -- zee or zed? The alphabet, which starts out so firm and resolute, with a clear vowel and a clear consonant, starting with letters that recall the very name of the piece, ends muddled -- or perhaps, ends by breaking apart the strict categories that seemed so necessary at first, leaving us with options, choices, possibilities -- in a word, freedom.

(When we do Hebrew we might see that this freedom was implied from the very beginning!)

2. If poetry creates form, if poetry creates structure and meanings we can hang our life upon, then the alphabet is a notorious source of such structure. We can alphabetize all day long (and yes, this is a poem that is clearly a technology, though perhaps not a technology in its role as poem). We can write abecedaria and we can organize our little black book. And the alphabet, as it rolls along, provides us with a form for such things. Who has not started an abecedarium excited and proud at how well it is going (apple, banana, cherry, durian, elderberry...) only to realize that, although the "B" challenge seemed tricky at the time, it is nothing compare to the clusterfuck of challenges meeting you at the end of the game: VWXYZ as the ultimate level boss. But it is good to start out with a light step, and end humbled but accomplished! This is a narrative of learning, a narrative we like seeing in our poetry (and in our alphabets).

3. If poetry is a delightful misunderstanding, then:

"Somewhere in the middle, it gets awfully QR to me!" A queer reading of the alphabet, on public television, in 1969! Heavens.

* * *

* Perhaps like a tanka, instead? And yes, technically you count the moras in haiku, not the syllables. Whatevs.

N.B. I'm totally stealing the initial thought about counting the consonants between the vowels from someone, but I can't remember who. I'm pretty sure the second part, about counting the syllables between vowels, is all me.


  1. Eccentric Scholar said...

    I'm too busy applauding this piece to manage more than a few words of praise. Really, really lovely!  


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