Learning how to write a poem is one of the first skills that we’re taught in school. In fact, we can bet that you’ve created plenty of acrostic poems without even realizing it. But they’re not just a fun exercise for young writers. Well-known authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Carroll were big fans of acrostic poetry and incorporated them into some of their most famous works.
But what is an acrostic poem? In this tutorial, we’ll give you a brief history of the art form, a few notable examples that you may be familiar with, and guidance on how to make an acrostic poem of your own.
What Is an Acrostic Poem?
If you’re wondering about the acrostic poem definition, the best way to describe this type of poetry is by showing you a quick example.
Stars above, they shine so bright
Twinkling up there in the moonlit night
Always sparkling, just out of reach
Radiant bursts across a twilight beach
Unlike other forms of poetry, acrostic poems are constructed so that the first letter of each line spells out a word or message for the reader. They’re often used to teach children the alphabet and to develop their writing skills as they learn how to write a poem, but they can also be helpful as a way to remember certain words or phrases (in fact, it’s a great technique for language-learning or test-taking).
The word acrostic can also be applied to alphabetic poetry, where each line starts with a succeeding letter of the alphabet. This is also known as an abecedarian acrostic. Though fairly rare, double acrostics can happen when both the first letter and last letter of each line spell out their own words or phrases. If you move your message or word to the end of the line only, that becomes a telestich acrostic poem.
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History of Acrostic Poetry
Some of the earliest acrostic poem examples come from the Ancient Greeks. The word itself comes from the Greek akros to mean “at the end” and stichos meaning “line” or “verse”.
Latin and Greek scholars would often write their poetry on individual leaves and then arrange them to form a word, creating the world’s first acrostic poems. There are even examples of acrostic poetry in the Hebrew Bible, from the Psalms to the Book of Lamentations.
The medieval period saw a resurgence in the popularity of acrostic poetry, with monks writing poems about the saints they worshipped. Poets of the Italian Renaissance were inspired by these clerical works and began to create their own acrostic work for their aristocratic patrons.
Some historians even argue that acrostics were the original codes, used to hide secret messages in letters and literature. Experienced codebreakers have even found advanced techniques being used with acrostics, where messages were written in reverse or hidden between other letters in each line.
Famous Examples of Acrostic Poems
There are plenty of famous acrostic poem examples throughout history, but Edgar Allan Poe’s An Acrostic is one of the most well-known.
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.
While it’s not clear who exactly Elizabeth is, Poe uses this acrostic to talk about the themes of love and happiness.
Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland also wrote acrostic poetry outside of his more famous prose work. This particular poem was written for his three daughters for Christmas and spells out their names—Lorina, Alice, and Edith.
Little maidens, when you look
On this little story-book,
Reading with attentive eye
Its enticing history,
Never think that hours of play
Are your only HOLIDAY,
And that in a HOUSE of joy
Lessons serve but to annoy:
If in any HOUSE you find
Children of a gentle mind,
Each the others pleasing ever—
Each the others vexing never—
Daily work and pastime daily
In their order taking gaily—
Then be very sure that they
Have a life of HOLIDAY.
Literature isn’t the only place that you’ll find acrostic poetry. The national anthem of the Netherlands is both the oldest national anthem in the world and an acrostic, with the first letters of its 15 verses spelling out “Willem Van Nassov.” This was one of the hereditary titles of King William of Orange, the monarch that the anthem is based on.
How to Write an Acrostic Poem Yourself
If you’re thinking about how to make an acrostic poem of your own, it’s quick and easy to get started. There are acrostic poem makers and generators online that can give you an idea if you’re unsure of what to write the first few times. They’ll help you to come up with different poems based on whatever you’d like your vertical word to be.
You can also use a template if visualizing your poem in its final vertical form is easier for you. Search for “acrostic poem templates” online and you’ll find a vast selection from the most basic line template to illustrated designs for writing poems with children.
But like learning any other new skill, writing your own acrostic poems will take some practice so the best way to get started is to dive straight in.
Step 1: Decide What Your Vertical Word Is
If you’re writing an acrostic, you know that there will be a final word that you want to use as your vertical. It’s important to decide on what you want this to be first so that you can base the rest of your poem’s lines around this. After all, you don’t want to write the best poem of your life to then realize that the first letter of each line means absolutely nothing!
Step 2: Start Filling in Placeholders
Have a great idea for a line opener? Fill it in! Go through each letter of your vertical word and see where you can put in placeholder words that match the theme and topic of your poem. This will help you to start building structure as you work.
Step 3: Add in Sensory Details
One of the greatest aspects of poetry is the details that make the reader think or feel something. Once you have some of your placeholder line openers noted down, now is the time to go through the rest of your lines and see where you can add in these details. Think carefully about what you want to convey with your poetry. What kind of feeling do you want the reader to have? What do you want them to take away from this? Similes, metaphors, and other types of imagery are excellent tools to use here.
Step 4: Work on Revisions
When your poem is complete, go back through it line by line. Does it actually make sense and accomplish what you’re trying to achieve? See where you can tighten up the structure to flow better or if there are any words you can swap out for something more powerful or emotive.