Abecedarium and Meaning

            In preparation for class this past week I read the poem Zulus from Percival Everett’s re:f(gesture). Dr. McCoy had previously shared that the poem is an abecedarium, which means that it follows the order of the alphabet. In Everett’s poem each page addresses a different letter and states what it “is for.” For example, the first page begins with the line “A is for Achitophel” and the last page ends with “Z is for Zulus.” In a previous class Dr. McCoy had our class arrange ourselves in alphabetical order by name and then asked what the significance of this order meant. As a class, we determined that the arrangement of letters that we consider the alphabet is completely arbitrary but useful in providing order. The alphabet is necessary to provide a structure that remains consistent. A reader can expect that in an abecedarium the text will start with the letter A and end with the letter Z. This led me to wonder why Everett chose to arrange Zulus in abecedarian form. What is the purpose of this arrangement and structure?

            In class we broke into small groups and Dr. McCoy asked us to discuss what to do with these poems in a New Critical sense. According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms New Critics “based their interpretations on elements within the text rather than on external factors.” I found this approach interesting because Zulus is filled with references to philosophers, famous figures, and different historical events making my first impulse as a reader to investigate this outside information. I assumed that meaning would come from diving into research of these references, but that is not the technique of New Criticism. Upon returning to The Bedford definition I found a section stating that New Critics “also emphasized that the structure should not be divorced from its meaning.” Therefore, according to New Criticism, understanding the structure of the poem is essential to understanding the meaning. Once again, I had been brought back to structure and my original question of what does the poems arrangement in an abecedarian mean?

            I decided to return to The Bedford once more and stumbled upon the term structuralist criticism which “believes all elements of human culture, including literature, may be understood as a system of signs.” I flipped over to the term sign, which The Bedford defines as “something that stands for something else.” I reported my findings with my group and suggested that perhaps the abecedarian structure is meant to signify something else. One of our group members, Ryan, pointed out the frequent references to African history. The poem states “B is for blood… Blood River, where three Boers were wounded on 16 December 1838. Three hours of battle leaving three thousand Zulus dead” and later “S is for soldiers and slaves.” These lines, and others throughout the poem, reference the difficult history of the Zulus filled with constant violence and war.  Another group member, Joe, noticed that as you near the end of the English alphabet there are less and less words that begin with those letters. Additionally, the pages for W, XY, and Z contain shorter poems, with Z only lasting one line. Joe suggested that the shortening of the poems could signify and mirror the loss of the Zulu culture.

            As we were discussing this realization Lauren drew our attention to the definition of structural irony. The Bedford defines structural irony as containing “an internal feature that creates or promotes discrepancy… some elements of work’s structure invites the audience or reader to probe beneath surface statements or appearances.” The alphabet is simple and can be traced back to childhood learning when we were taught to sing our ABCs. However, Everett is using it to structure a poem that includes history of a culture that was very complex. Lauren brought up that the poem references events, people, and literature that are not common knowledge for most average readers similarly, Zulu customs were not understood by many people but were important to the Zulu culture. The simplicity of the alphabetical format is ironic considering the subject matter and could be misleading to a reader who does not understand the depth of the content.

            As we continued to examine the structure, our group noticed the inconsistencies in the poem. For example, the line that states “A is for Solomon” when obviously, Solomon’s name does not start with the letter A, but Everett felt it relevant to include him in this section. As we discussed the section “K is for kiss” our conversation took us back to letter H which Amanda noticed when she exclaimed “How did we get from letter K to Hades?” We realized that as we looked deeper and deeper into the poems, they seemed to connect us back to previous letters in a similar way to how the term “structural irony” was listed in The Bedford under S but the definition was part of “irony” listed in I. Although both The Bedford, and Zulus are arranged alphabetically the poem seems to mock “order” by connecting the letters to each other at random.

This made me realize that there may not be a concrete answer to my initial question. The structure can be interpreted in many ways, some leading to distinct meanings, others determining that there is no meaning at all. As Lauren said in our group, “not understanding is generative.” Which reminded me of the constant questions and frustration that surrounded Not Sidney’s name in Everett’s I am Not Sidney Poitier. But what she says is true. The beauty of literature for me comes from that ability to question and there can be an abundance of unique interpretations all relating to the same work.

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