If you’re a fan of steganography—the art of concealing messages in text—you might enjoy writing an acrostic poem. From the abecedarian to the golden shovel, acrostic poetry hijacks the poem’s use of line breaks. With this form, you can embed hidden meanings, derive inspiration, or simply have fun with the structure of poetry.
Famous acrostic poems throughout history have used the form to write love letters, incite political rebellions, and play with form. In this article, we’ll discuss how to write an acrostic poem yourself, with 5 different forms of acrostic poetry that can inspire or challenge your writing.
We’ll also share some different acrostic poem examples. But first, what is an acrostic poem?
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What is an Acrostic Poem?
If you’re familiar with the basics of poetry form, you know that a poem is organized in lines and stanzas, rather than sentences and paragraphs. Like any work of English literature, a poem is read from left to right, top to bottom.
The same is true for acrostic poems. But, in addition to being read left to right, the poem also contains a hidden message in the form of vertically aligned letters or words. In other words, an acrostic poem is a poem that uses the vertical nature of poetry to spell out a hidden word or phrase.
What is an acrostic poem? It is a poem that uses the vertical nature of poetry to spell out a hidden word or phrase.
This is better demonstrated in some acrostic poem examples. Take the piece “An Acrostic” by Edgar Allan Poe—retrieved here from Poets.org.
Elizabeth it is in vain you say
“Love not” — thou sayest it in so sweet a way:
In vain those words from thee or L.E.L.
Zantippe’s talents had enforced so well:
Ah! if that language from thy heart arise,
Breath it less gently forth — and veil thine eyes.
Endymion, recollect, when Luna tried
To cure his love — was cured of all beside —
His follie — pride — and passion — for he died.
Notice that the first letter of each line also spells out the poem’s first word: ELIZABETH. This poem, dedicated to Poe’s cousin Elizabeth Rebecca Herring, makes use of Greek mythology to discuss themes of love, beauty, and death.
If the poem itself is difficult to understand, don’t worry—its references are rather obscure. L.E.L. refers to the poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon, who often wrote about love or its absence. Zantippe, more commonly spelled Xanthippe, was the wife of Socrates and, reportedly, had a sharp temper (though she was also a devoted housewife).
Endymion, by contrast, was a man whom the moon (Luna) fell in love with. Luna begged Zeus to grant Endymion eternal life, which Zeus agreed to, though he also put Endymion in eternal sleep, essentially preserving his beauty but robbing him of his life.
Here, the acrostic poem form is being used to dedicate the poem to another person. However, there are many more creative uses of the acrostic form, which we will uncover in the following acrostic poem examples.
Acrostic Poem Examples: 6 Forms of Acrostic Poetry
As with any poetry form, poets have tinkered with the acrostic poem for centuries. Here are six types of acrostic poetry to inspire and challenge you.
1. The Conventional Acrostic Poem
The conventional acrostic poem uses the first letter or word of each line to spell out a related word or phrase. Edgar Allan Poe gave us one of many acrostic poem examples that follow this form; below is another example, from “A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky” by Lewis Carroll.
A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky
A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July —Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear —Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream —
Lingering in the golden gleam —
Life, what is it but a dream?
The first letter of each line spells out the name “ALICE PLEASANCE LIDDELL,” the subject of the poem. Alice also serves as the inspiration of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a work whose themes and ideas can be seen, albeit inchoate, in this poem.
On top of the acrostic form, Carroll also rhymes each tercet, making this poem both metrically challenging and a pleasure to read. Of course, acrostic poems can do more than just embed names in their lines—they can embed messages of any sort!—but the acrostic name poem is a common theme.
2. The Double Acrostic Poem
Following suit, the double acrostic poem embeds a message both at the beginning and at the end of each line. The first letter of each line spells out a word, and so does the last letter of each line.
Double acrostic poem examples are hard to find, and good examples are even harder. Perhaps the most famous example is the poem “Stroud” by Paul Hansford, in dedication to the town of the same name in England.
Set among hills in the midst of five valleys,
This peaceful little market town we inhabit
Refuses (vociferously!) to be a conformer.
Once home of the cloth it gave its name to,
Uphill and down again its streets lead you.
Despite its faults it leaves us all charmed.
Despite the fun challenge of writing a double acrostic, this form is relatively rare in published poetry. As such, there is much room for experimentation, and you should challenge yourself with the form!
One idea for experimentation would be a double helix poem, in which the first letters can be read top-to-bottom, and last letters can be read bottom-to-top, mirroring the directionality of DNA.
3. The Abecedarian Poem
The abecedarian poem is a type of acrostic in which the first letter of each line runs in alphabetical order. Naturally, most abecedarian poems are 26 lines long. Despite the challenge of following alphabetical order, a good abecedarian will still rely on using concrete nouns and verbs at the start of each line, eschewing the easy route of articles, adverbs, and prepositions whenever possible.
Abecedarian definition: a type of acrostic in which the first letter of each line runs in alphabetical order.
Here’s one of many great abecedarian poem examples, titled “abecedarian with sexual tension” by Emily Corwin.
are you running to someplace that
beckons you? in the wild yonder, where Icrackle, the lungs of me blooming silver in the
dimness, riverbed gone out. should we meet then at
evening? under coxcomb and swollen,
filled with asking for each other, asking whether
goodness can be taught, whether this is right. and
how do you heal yourself, my dear?
I remember what you are—scab, totem,
juniper on the side of this house. do you make me
kind? would you like to reach between my doors—
lurid as a milksnake? I break every promise
made once to myself, in the darkening, dark
now, and my blackberries are burnt. I put fire
on the table, the rosewood made soft and
pinkish. I long to be among your
quiet plants, your neck unclothed, your wrist and
rhubarb, the red thorny vine coiling,
smoked in you—a heat that pulls, dragging anyone
toward it, toward being raptured,
unmade by your finger tips, undone my ribs,
vertebrae—scraped, used like a
whetstone. it is scary, to live like this, under the
x-ray machines, everything visible in my
young chest—a threshold. enter me between a
zillion bright rooms, all at once hushing.
The challenge, of course, is to write convincing lines using those Scrabble letters like J, X, Q, and Z. Some more abecedarian poem examples include “A Poem for S.” by Jessica Greenbaum, “Hummingbird Abecedarian” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and “A Boy Can Wear a Dress” by John Bosworth.
4. The Mesostich
The mesostich, also known as a mesostic poem, is a type of acrostic poem in which a word or phrase is formed down the middle of the poem.
Like other acrostic forms, the mesostich can be read like normal, and the hidden message will often be italicized or capitalized down the center of the text. Some poets, like Andrew Culver, argue that a true mesotich is only achieved when the mesostic letters are not repeated twice in the same line.
Poet John Cage popularized the mesostich form. Here’s an example of the mesostich, out of John Cage’s longform poem Overpopulation and Art. Cage’s poem repeats the phrase “OVERPOPULATION AND ART” as a mesostich 20 times—one time for each letter of the phrase ‘OVERPOPULATION AND ART.”
For more fun with the form, check out this mesostic poem generator from the University of Pennsylvania.
5. The Telestich
Like the mesostich, the telestich is a relatively uncommon form of the acrostic. Telestiches form words or phrases using the last letters of each line.
We’ve already seen one example of the telestich in the double acrostic poem, as the last line of that poem spelled out “STROUD.” That said, telestiches are relatively uncommon in English-language and contemporary poetry.
However, the telestich was a common tactic used by Ovid, an Ancient Roman poet. In The Metamorphoses, Ovid employs telestich lines that often refer to the content of the text itself. First, let’s look at one telestich he employed in the original Latin:
From Metamorphoses, Book 1, lines 406-411:
non exacta satis rudibusque simillima signis.
Quae tamen ex illis aliquo pars umida suco
et terrena fuit, versa est in corporis usum;
quod solidum est flectique nequit, mutatur in ossa;
quae modo vena fuit, sub eodem nomine mansit;
inque brevi spatio superorum numine saxa
The poem’s telestich spells out the word “SOMATA,” an Ancient Greek word meaning “bodies.” This is relevant to the text itself, which you can see for yourself in this translation:
as marble statue chiseled in the rough.
The soft moist parts were changed to softer flesh,
the hard and brittle substance into bones,
the veins retained their ancient name.
The use of the telestich reinforces the corporeal nature of the text, exhibiting the kind of structural (and multilingual) wordplay that Ovid embedded in his work.
For a full translation of the text, as well as the original Latin, you can find Metamorphoses here.
6. The Golden Shovel
The Golden Shovel is a poetry form invented by Terrance Hayes. To write a golden shovel, the last word of each line should be read vertically so that it transcribes the text of another poem (making this form a modified version of the telestich).
Terrance Hayes’ poem “The Golden Shovel” is the first example of this form, which adapted the text of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool”. You can see Brooks’ poem repeated through the end words of each line in Hayes’ piece.
We’ve covered “We Real Cool” before, both in our article on short form poetry and our article on repetition devices. So, here’s a different example of The Golden Shovel. Michael Kleber-Diggs’ poem “America is Loving Me to Death” is a Golden Shovel of the Pledge of Allegiance—and it also has a beginning-letter acrostic!
Read the poem here, in the Academy of American Poets.
How to Write an Acrostic Poem: 5 Tips
In the above acrostic poem examples, poets employed a variety of the following tips.
How to Write an Acrostic Poem: Innovate Forms
Of course, spend some time practicing the acrostic. Write a golden shovel, a mesostich, or some great abecedarian poem examples. But also, feel free to experiment: the blank page is fertile ground.
For example, we were not able to find an acrostic poem that has a message down the beginning, middle, and end letters. Nor have we seen acrostics that read their message backwards, from bottom to top. Or, what if the acrostic was paired with another challenging form? Imagine a contrapuntal that’s also an abecedarian.
Whatever you write, give in to experimentation. That’s what the acrostic is for!
How to Write an Acrostic Poem: Experiment with “Down Words”
What kinds of hidden messages can you embed? In our acrostic poem examples, poets have embedded the letters of names, themes, ideas, and even political messages. What else could you use those “down words” for?
Experiment with those words, because you might strike something new and unexplored in acrostic poetry. Perhaps the acrostic will contradict the message of the poem; perhaps you will embed references to famous quotes, slogans, or other works of art and literature. The acrostic is a space for you to build references and metatextuality, so lean into this, and don’t necessarily settle for the first idea you come up with.
How to Write an Acrostic Poem: Forge a Relationship Between Form and Language
Whatever hidden message you develop, it should have a relationship to the text of the poem itself. This may not be the case if you write a traditional abecedarian poem, but even then, it’s best if the poem’s form has something to do with the poem’s message.
Have fun with this, because the relationship between form and language is the crux of acrostic poetry. One idea would be to write an acrostic that’s self-referential. For example, what if a mesostic poem was cleaved by the word “sword”? Or what if a poem’s beginning letters and telestich both spelled out the word “BOOKENDS?”
How to Write an Acrostic Poem: Use Natural Language
The trick to writing a good acrostic poem is to keep the language natural and precise. Too often, a bad acrostic is plagued by bad word choice.
For the purposes of writing acrostic poetry, eschew the urge to use a thesaurus. Really. If you search for synonyms of words that begin or end with certain letters, you’ll convince yourself to use words that sound unnatural or have different intended usages. Try to use language organically, and only check the dictionary for confirmation. You’ll find that the poem will flow on its own, without the use of grandiloquent language or narrowly-related synonyms.
How to Write an Acrostic Poem: Let the Poem Stand on Its Own
Finally, an acrostic poem should have a clear message without the hidden “down words.” In other words, the acrostic should not be necessary to understanding the poem—rather, it’s like an “easter egg” of the poem. It should refine or complicate the poem’s message—it can even provide the poem’s title—but it should not be the sole reason for the poem’s existence.
Let the poem be a poem regardless of the acrostic. Structure exists to inform, enhance, and challenge the meaning of the poem (there’s no language without structure), but not to define the poem itself.
More Famous Acrostic Poem Examples
Looking for more acrostic poem examples to inspire your writing? Here’s a brief list of famous acrostic poems.
- “Ode for a Phi Beta Kappa Occasion” by Rolfe Humphries
- “Georgiana Augusta Keats” by John Keats
- “Missing Glossary” by Claire Wahmanholm
- “Acrostic” by Lewis Carroll
- “Acrostic from Aegina” by David Mason
- “La Priere De Nostre Dame” by Geoffrey Chaucer
- “London” by William Blake (the third stanza)
- Hymns of Astræa by Sir John Davies
- Darkling by Anna Rabinowitz
- “Canicular Acrostic” by Anthony Kerrigan
- Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullen
Learn How to Write an Acrostic Poem at Writers.com
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