Friday, April 17, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Acrostic

An acrostic poem is one in which the first, last or some other letters, when read in a line moving downward, spell out a word or phrase. Acrostic poems date back to ancient times. They are found in the Bible and Roman ruins. Chaucer wrote them in the Middle Ages. Christopher Marlowe, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll and others have written in this form.

Here's a bit of background on the form from Avis Harley's book, African Acrostics.
The acrostic is a playful poetic form that people have enjoyed writing and reading since ancient times. The name comes from akros, the Greek word meaning outermost, or end, and stichos, meaning row, or a line of verse. Although the form has many variations, the most popular is the traditional acrostic, in which the first letters of the lines, when read downward, spell a word or words.
... Acrostics offer the writer an intriguing framework for a poem, and single acrostics are not difficult to create. Think of a word, phrase, or even a whole sentence that catches your imagination. Then write it vertically. You can use one words per line, or many words—rhymed or unrhymed. A predetermined letter can sometimes spark an unexpected idea, and it's great fun to hide a word or message for your readers
Astonish yourself—
Create a poem that
On its
Think of the fun when
It lets the letters help you
Text and Poem ©Avis Harley. All rights reserved.  
On my regular travels through classrooms I have noticed that students are often asked to write acrostic poems. Sometimes I see their names or the topic they are studying as the spine of their poems. Too often these acrostic studies are merely lists of descriptive words or phrases. Poetry they are not. I think good acrostic poems are hard to write. To inspire students in their acrostic writing you need strong mentor texts they can use as models. The books that follow provide outstanding examples of acrostics that work.
African Acrostics: A Word in Edgeways (2012), written by Avis Harley with photographs by Deborah Noyes, is a collection of 18 acrostic poems, each accompanied by a gorgeous photograph of the animal described. Poems cover the crocodile, rhino, kudu, lion, hornbill, elephant, stork, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, ostrich, African wildcat, lioness, bonobo, impala, hippo, bat-eared fox, and leopard. The book opens with a poem about the form.

ACROSTIC (uh-Kros-tik)

Welcome, all poets--both new
Or well versed. Non-rhymers or
Rhymers! Come,
Dive in headfirst!

Inviting all writers--
Now you're just the right age.

Explore the acrostic that rides
Down the page.
Get a word you
Enjoy and would like to define.
Write it down vertically
And fill in each line.
Your name is a very good way to begin.
Surprise yourself. Find that poem within!

Now that you've been introduced to the notion of a "word in edgeways," I doubt you'll ever look at an acrostic in the same way. In fact, Harley pushes the boundaries of the form and does more than write simple acrostics. Let's skip to the endnotes for a moment where readers will find descriptions and examples of the many forms found in this collection, such as the double acrostic, multiple acrostic, cross acrostic, and more. Here's an example of a double acrostic.

Eye to Eye

Ear-sails flap in a breeze.
Leather limbs in rhythm
Evenly swaying in step
Plod slowly over Africa.
Huge as a dinosaur, yet
tender soul from such
Noble mammoth alumni.
There is wonder abuzz,
Staring into eyes so wise.

Poems ©Avis Harley. All rights reserved.

The poems in this book are deftly created. The words spelled out vertically range from single words (herald, lying, poppet, outstanding) to phrases (wild stripes, cloud friends, fatherly advice, beauty in the beast). The double acrostics, quintuple acrostic (yes, that's FIVE words), and concrete acrostic deserve some special attention. The patterns that exist within them never get in the way of the poem itself, and finding them is a bit of a surprise. 
Spring: An Alphabet Acrostic (1999), written by Steven Schnur and illustrated by Leslie Evans, is a collection of 26 acrostics from April to zenith. The poems each serve as a complete thought about the subject and are crafted exquisitely with what seem to be just the right words. Here are a few examples.

After days of
Rain, the last
Ice and snow finally
Leave the earth.

Egrets, ducks and
Geese nest in the marsh
Grass, waiting for their
Shells to hatch.

Nestled under the
Eaves, a
Song-filled ark of
Twigs and grass.

Poems ©Steven Schnur. All rights reserved.

You will also find poems for the words buds, calf, dawn, frog, grass, hopscotch, infant, jungle, kites, ladder, May, outside, parade, quintuplets, raft, seeds, twilight, umpire, Venus, wheat, Xing, and young.

There are four books in this series, each one with carefully crafted acrostics. You can view some of the illustrations in the series and read a few more poems on Leslie Evans' web site.
Silver Seeds, written by Paul Paolilli and Dan Brewer with paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, is a collection of 15 nature poems using the acrostic form. The verses are ordered to follow a young boy and girl through the day, beginning with dawn and ending with night. In between they encounter sun, shadow, hills, trees, leaves (though the word is leaf), a bee, butterfly, hummingbird, clouds, fog, rain, the moon, and stars. Here is the poem that gives the book its title and one on clouds.

Silver seeds
Tossed in the air
And planted in the sky,
Reaching out of the darkness
Sprouting wonder. 

Creamy scoops of ice cream
Under a
Dreamy blue

Poems ©Paul Paolilli and Dan Brewer. All rights reserved.

The poems in each of these collections are economical and evocative. The metaphors are carefully selected and spot-on.

You will notice that each of the poems shared are fine examples of the form, far removed from the school-assigned poems to write an acrostic using your first name, or some vocabulary word being studied. Now that you've had a chance to think a bit about this form, here are some resources you may find helpful.
That's it for acrostic poems. Come back this weekend for two new interviews with children's poets.


  1. T ricia
    H ow
    A arrayed like gifts
    N ew poetry forms
    K indle ideas
    S o children can expressly create word pictures

    M aking poetry
    U derscores
    C hildren's need to
    H ave creative outlets for their busy minds

    And "Elephants empathize" is a heartmelt discovery in Avis Harley's "Eye to Eye" in the book you share. Appreciations for this short-course in the array of acrostics that await us.

  2. Thank you Tricia for this informative piece which has opened my eyes to the possibilities in creating Acrostic poems. I have discouraged my third graders from using this form but armed with these new book ideas I will reexamine this form with them.