Acrostic Poem: Definition & Examples

Acrostic Poem: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:05 What Are Acrostic Poems?
  • 1:42 History of Acrostic Poems
  • 3:40 Uses of Acrostic Poems
  • 4:40 Examples
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Suzanne Sweat

Suzanne has taught 12 years in the NC Public School System and three years at Campbell University. She has a master's degree in English Education.

Though they may seem like simple forms of poetry today, acrostic poems have a history of depth and creativity that has crossed many centuries and time zones. Read on to find out how to write an acrostic poem, and who has used this poetic form in their own writings.

What Are Acrostic Poems?

Have you ever been asked by a teacher to write your name vertically and then come up with a word that describes you for every letter that spells your name? For example, if your name is Sam, maybe you wrote:

Sweet
Artistic
Magnificent

If you remember doing this exercise, then congratulations, you have written an acrostic poem! Although it may have seemed like an elementary activity at the time, these exercises elevate you to the poetic ranks of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Poe. Well, maybe not quite to their level, but these famous authors and many others have used the acrostic poem as part of their own literary art form.

An acrostic poem is a poem that uses the first letter from each consecutive line of verse to form a word, phrase, or sentence. The poem does not have to rhyme or have a specific meter, although if you are a very skilled writer, your acrostic poem may have both!

To create an acrostic poem, think of a word or topic you'd like to discuss. Brainstorm words or phrases that express information or characteristics about your subject. Write your word or topic vertically down your paper, then use the vertical letters to begin each word or phrase of your line of poetry. Here's a basic example:

Sometimes I can be haughty, though
Usually I stay away from the spotlight,
Zigzagging my way through the shadows
And giving credit to others for their work.
Now and then, however, I find myself in
Need of praise; so I spell my name in letters.
Excuse me for my vanity.

History of Acrostic Poems

Acrostic poems have been around for centuries. The earliest record of an acrostic use is in the prophesies of the Erithraean Sibyl, prophetesses who were believed to have predicted the Trojan War and other historical events. The prophesies were written on leaves, and then the leaves were positioned so that the first letter of each leaf created a word.

An acrostic poem was also found at Pompeii during an archaeological excavation. Since the messages in acrostics are usually visible only when it is understood when each line of poetry begins and ends, it is believed that, unlike other poetic forms, acrostic poetry was first written rather than passed down orally.

Acrostic poems can be found in many different types of literature. There are at least 12 clear examples of acrostics in the Old Testament (mostly in the Psalms). Shakespeare is said to have used acrostics to hide messages from Christopher Marlowe, and Edgar Allen Poe wrote a poem titled A Valentine in which he spelled out the name 'Frances Sargent Osgood'. Lewis Carroll used an acrostic poem at the end of his book Through the Looking Glass to highlight the name of Alice Pleasance Liddell, on whom Alice in Wonderland is based.

Some writers would decorate the first letters of each line to stand out, while others, especially Renaissance writers, would use the poems as hidden messages. It is believed that double acrostics were invented during the 1800s. These poems use letters at both the beginning and end of each line to spell out a message. Here is an example of a double acrostic:

Fly by the seat of your pants, nothing planned
Unfettered life, free to travel to any area
New adventures await every step of the way

Uses of Acrostic Poems

An acrostic can be used as a memory tool by allowing the word spelled vertically to stand for words that one may need to remember. For example, the acrostic 'FANBOYS' is a common mnemonic used to help school children remember the seven conjunctions of the English language:

For
And
Nor
But
Or
Yet
So

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