Audio: Hear Richard Wilbur, former poet laureate of the United States, introduce and read "The Disappearing Alphabet" (9:17)
If the alphabet began to disappear,
Some words would soon look raggedy and queer
(Like QUIRREL, HIMPANZEE, AND CHOOCHOO-TRAI),
While others would entirely fade away.
And since it is by words that we construe
The world, the world would start to vanish too . . .
What if there were no letter A?
Cows would eat HY instead of HAY.
What's HY? It's an unheard-of diet,
And cows are happy not to try it.
In the word DUMB the letter B is mute,
But elsewhere its importance is acute.
If it were absent, say, from BAT and BALL,
There'd be no big or little leagues at all.
If there were no such thing as C,
Whole symphonies would be off-key,
And under every nut tree you'd
See HIPMUNKS gathering winter food.
If D did not exist, some creatures might
Wish, like the dodo bird, to fade from sight.
For instance, any self-respecting DUCK
Would rather be extinct than be an UCK.
The lordly ELEPHANT is one whom we
Would have no name for if there were no E,
And how it would offend him were we to
Greet him as "Bud," or "Big Boy," or "Hey, you!"
The ELEPHANT is thick-skinned, but I'll bet
That that's a thing he never would forget.
Hail, letter F! If it were not for you,
Our raincoats would be merely WATERPROO,
And that is such a stupid word, I doubt
That it would help to keep the water out.
If G did not exist, the color GREEN
Would have to vanish from the rural scene.
Would oak trees, then, be blue, and pastures pink?
We would turn green at such a sight, I think.
An H can be too scared to speak, almost.
In gloomy words like GHASTLY, GHOUL, and GHOST,
The sound of H can simply not be heard.
But how it loves to say a cheerful word
Like HEALTH, or HAPPINESS, or HOLIDAY!
Or HALLELUJAH! Or HIP, HIP, HURRAY!
Without the letter I, there'd be
No word for your IDENTITY,
And so you'd find it very tough
To tell yourself from other stuff.
Sometimes, perhaps, you'd think yourself
A jam jar on the pantry shelf.
Sometimes you'd make a ticking sound
And slowly move your hands around.
Sometimes you'd lie down like a rug,
Expecting to be vacuumed. Ugh!
Surely, my friends, you now see why
We need to keep the letter I.
If, all at once, there were no letter J,
A cloud of big blue birds might fly away,
And though they'd been an angry, raucous crew,
I think that I would miss them, wouldn't you?
Is K unnecessary? "Heavens, no!
It's in my name!" exclaims the ESKIMO.
"And if there were no K, my little craft,
The KAYAK, would be scuttled fore and aft."
It would be bitter, if there were no L,
To bid the LEMON or the LOON farewell,
And if the LLAMA, with its two-L name,
Should leave us, it would be a double shame,
But certainly it would be triply sad
If LOLLIPOPS no longer could be had.
M is a letter, but it alternates
As a Roman numeral often found in dates.
If M should vanish, we would lose, my dears,
MINCE PIE, MARSHMALLOWS, and a thousand years.
No N? In such a state of things,
Birds would have WIGS instead of WINGS,
And though a wig might suit the owl,
Who is a staid and judgelike fowl,
Most birds would rather fly than wear
A mat of artificial hair.
What would our proud bald eagle say
If he were offered a toupee?
I think it would be better, then,
For us to keep the letter N.
What if there were no letter O?
You couldn't COME, you couldn't GO,
You couldn't ROVE, you couldn't ROAM,
And yet you couldn't stay at HOME!
Where would you be had heaven not sent you
The letter O to orient you?
How strange that the banana's slippery PEEL,
Without its P, would be a slippery EEL!
It makes you think! However, it is not
Profound enough to think about a lot.
What if the letter Q should be destroyed?
Millions of Us would then be unemployed.
For Q and U belong like tick and tock,
Except, of course, in places like IRAQ.
What if there were no R? Your boat, I fear,
Would have no RUDDER, and so you couldn't steer.
How helplessly you'd drift then, and be borne
Through churning seas, and swept around the Horn!
But happily you couldn't come to grief
On ROCKS, or run aground upon a REEF.
What if the letter S were missing?
COBRAS would have no way of hissing,
And all their kin would have to take
The name of ERPENT or of NAKE.
At breakfast time the useful letter T
Preserves us all from eating SHREDDED WHEA.
Without the letter U you couldn't say,
"I think I'd like to visit URUGUAY,"
And so you'd stay forever in North Platte,
New Paltz, or Scranton, or some place like that.
Were there no V, would geese still fly
In V FORMATION in the sky,
Calling it something else instead,
Like "angle," "wedge," or "arrowhead"?
Perhaps. Or they might take the shape
Of smoke rings or of ticker tape,
Or spell out words like HERE WE GO
Or NUTS TO YOU. You never know.
What if there were no letter W?
The WEREWOLF would no longer trouble you,
And you'd be free of many evils
Like WARTS and WEARINESS and WEEVILS.
But then there'd be (alas!) no sweet
WATERMELONS for you to eat.
The letter X will never disappear:
The more you cross it out, the more it's here.
But if it vanished, treasure maps would not
Have anything with which to mark the spot,
And treasure isles would ring with the despair
Of puzzled pirates digging everywhere.
Lacking the letter Y, I guess
We'd have no way of saying YES,
Or even saying MAYBE, and so
There'd be no answer left but NO.
How horrible! Who wants to live
A life so very negative,
Refusing presents, RASPBERRY ice,
Fudge cake, and everything that's nice?
Because they're always BUZZING, honeybees
Could not be with us if there were no Zs,
And many Zs are needed, furthermore,
When people feel the need to SNOOZE and snore.
Long live the Z, then! Not for any money
Would I give up such things as sleep and honey.
Good heavens! It would be an awful mess
If everything dissolved to nothingness!
Be careful then, my friends, and do not let
Anything happen to the alphabet.
Richard Wilbur was poet laureate of the United States in 1987. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1957 for Things of This World and in 1989 for New and Collected Poems.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; The Disappearing Alphabet; Volume 280, No. 5; page 93.