Turning 60 and other Formal Considerations. 2
So there I was, dunes across the street, pool in front of me, spitting blustery grey above, and bag of primary-colored kids’ alphabet toys in front of me. I had a nice “What if?” moment and started pulling the letters out, writing whatever word starting with that letter came to mind down the margin of my lined paper, then using those words as the first words 26 lines of a draft of a poem.
“Abecedarian” is the name for poems that follow the alphabet down through 26 lines. I’ve always thought they were a little silly—grade-school-ish. I told myself this one (which, oddly enough, turned out to be about the weather…) was okay because it was out of order. And I had a good time trying to string odd words together, letting lines break awkwardly just because they needed to get to the next word, letting odd turns come along because of those words.
So I did it again a couple of days later. And again a couple of days after that. By then, I had to go back and change some lines because I’d added another couple of rules to what I’d started calling the “Disorderly Abecedarians:” none of the words could repeat as first-words in the sequence, it was a sequence, there was going to be a general, if vague, theological breeze blowing through the whole shebang, and I would write 26 (I had to pick some number…). I also decided—and this was what made the early revisions necessary—that one letter would use the same word all the way through the sequence: L. And I decided, whimsically, that the word attached to that would be “love,” because I pretty much forbid my Intro to Poetry Writing students to use it.
Predictably, coming up with 26 Z-words, and 26 Q-words turned out to be beastly. I owe a great debt of gratitude to http://phrontistery.info/, which is a site dedicated to weird and lost English words. And, yes, I will be using footnotes because some of them don’t show up on thefreedictionary.com. The surprises were how hard K and Y also turned out to be.
And I was suddenly writing like I hadn’t ever, turning out drafts that had all kinds of weird energy and surprises (at least for me). I was having fun. I had a project that was eating my brain. At some point in July (our trip had been in early June), I decided that I’d try to finish all 26 before the semester started in late August.
Which I did. I had fun. I have loved writing poetry, for decades. It has been necessary to my well-being that I write, for decades. But I don’t know that I’ve ever had a blast writing poetry. And I have had many, many years when 26 poems would have seemed miraculous.
So the semester started. Because of my anarchic/rule-driven pile of poems in a form I had half-invented and only ever half-respected, I started off the school year feeling unusually pleased with my summer (several terrific trips and the fact that the black-eyes from a fall had disappeared just in time for the first day of class didn’t hurt either. But I wasn’t writing. Initially, I blamed it (probably with some justice) on the cluster-flurry that is the beginning of the semester. But by late September, it was clear that it was more than that. The abecedarians weren’t done with me.