A vastly underrated poet, in my mind, Barbara Hamby has been writing and publishing linguistically and intellectually dexterous poetry since her 1995 debut, Delirium. That book won the Vassar Miller prize, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and the Norma Farber First Book Award, and yes, I’m still telling you she’s underrated. To me, that’s how good she is, and that’s how influential she’s been on my work–she’s one of my idols. Here’s a poem that showcases her thinking and her voice (I once again took the text from www.poetryfoundation.org):
Ode on Dictionaries
I first encountered this poem in Hamby’s great selected poems, On the Street of Divine Love (Pittsburgh, 2014), though it’s in her earlier All-Night Lingo Tango (2009), which I hadn’t gotten around to reading (I’m blaming grad school, my second round). Hamby uses two established poetic forms here, the ode and the abecedarian. An ode is “a formal address to an event, a person, or a thing not present,” to quote the Academy of American Poets website, and it’s often associated with praise of that event, person, or thing. An abecedarian is a poem whose parts (lines or stanzas) are in alphabetical order. In this case, it’s a clever choice, because that’s how the dictionary is ordered, too, and the beginning of this poem explicitly calls up the beginning of the dictionary. I’m also in love with phrases like “rococo lexicon,” which both explains the diversity of her mother’s vocabulary and continues the great prosody here with the consonance of the repeated “co” sound.
YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Write an abecedarian. Start your first line with A, the next with b, and so on. I take Hamby’s lines to be so long that they spilled over to the next one, but these could also be separate lines, every other line indented, so that just the left-justified lines are in alphabetical order. This poem isn’t Hamby’s first experiment in the abecedarian form, either; if you enjoy this poem and exercise, check out her 1999 book The Alphabet of Desire.