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This review is taken from PN Review 16, Volume 7 Number 2, November - December 1980.

LETTERS OF MEN Alphabetical & letter poems, ed. Peter Mayer (Menard) £2.95

"When we get to Z/Our interest in the Alphabet is dead", wrote Belloc in his Moral Alphabet. If so, it will swiftly be revived by this book, which will surely prove intriguing and informative to many-and which is also well produced and attractively illustrated, despite some misprints. The subject is clearly a vast one, and Peter Mayer makes clear in his introduction that he is offering only a selection from work in progress. But the book ranges widely, highlighting the varieties of ABC poems, from the Bible to the present day-devotional, runic, reversed, monorhymed, sound ABCs, animal ABCs, picture ABCs-and also included is a previously unpublished Greek Alphabet poem by Coleridge.

Edwin Morgan, in an engaging foreword, writes of the "combination of regularity and chance" underlying alphabets, and of their "ritualistic power". ABC poems must rely too on the interplay of expectation and surprise-and this can be tricky, because where the poem is too obviously a formular exercise it loses something of its effectiveness, while too loose an approach may look like cheating. What is at issue is the degree of freedom that may be achieved within the potential tyranny of those marching letters. This is not only a severe test of ingenuity in terms of vocabulary (witness the recurrence of "Xanthippes"), but can alert us to the assumptions of sense which we make about the alphabet-as in Kurt Schwitters' "ZA (Elementary)", where our fundamental tendency to start at "A" can wittily persuade us to abandon the ...


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