The political acrobatics of acrostic poems

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A highly sophisticated 9th-century figure poem incorporating acrostic elements in British Library, Add MS 24193 

Reading is a visual act because writing is a practice meant to be seen. Words appeal to the eyes, even though their final destination is the mind, where they are processed into meaning. I like to think that once humans invented script, they just wanted to play with it. Homo ludens, right? Otherwise, how can we explain acrostic poems?

An acrostic, if you’ve never seen one, is a visual poem where the first letter of each line of text spells a word vertically. If I may be pardoned a lapse of idiocy, I’ll give you an example:

Blogging is not
In itself a
Big deal but
Let us not
Obscure something which
Nobody really is
Interested in or wants to
Approach with equanimity.

The dim-witted ‘poem’ above spells ‘BIBLONIA’ vertically. While you may not find any acrostics more imbecilic than this, others can be quite good.

Acrostic poems are acrobatic composition which don’t make sense off the page. They can’t be recited or performed without losing their acrostic effect. They are similar to technopaegnia, visual poems written in the shape of an object.

Medieval scribes were fond of acrostic poems, but not more than some early-modern poets, like François Villon or Pierre Corneille. Acrostics are fun because they seem clever, almost cipher-smart. And you can appear to be hiding in plain sight. And you can use them for praise or even bootlicking. They can get political.

An acrostic poem almost stopped a train sometimes in the 1980s when things threatened to become too poetically political. Or politically poetic. The story is told by Ioan T Morar in his book ‘Fake News from the Golden Age’, a collection of stories and anecdotes – some witnessed, some relayed – about censorship in communist Romania, published last month. My own comments are in square brackets.

‘The newspaper ‘Scânteia’ [The Spark] had published a poem dedicated to Ceaușescu (his birthday was coming up) and written by a common lickspittle, not by anyone well known. For this reason, the editor replaced a word at the beginning of the line which he thought ruined the overall message of the poem. A word which in the guy’s poem started with the letter ‘O’ was changed to a word beginning with the letter ‘I’ (Like changing the word ‘homage’ [‘Omagiu’ in Romanian] to ‘heart’ [‘inimă’ in Romanian].

The poem was published as such and the newspaper was dispatched [by train] to all four corners of the country. Then someone noticed that a very grave error had sneaked in. The poem was an acrostic, but the editor who’d amended it didn’t realise this, didn’t pay attention. […] Our poet tried hard to get the acrostic word ‘Nicolae Ceaușescu’ across, but the change the editor had made led to ‘NICILAE Ceaușescu’ instead. [‘Nicilae’, presumably understood as a mocking portmanteau made up of nici ‘not even’ and ‘lae’, a deprecatory term]. It was a huge scandal, the phones began to ring and the newspapers didn’t get loaded off the train when they reached the station. Then the error was corrected and the editor sanctioned’.

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