Poetry November 1997

The Disappearing Alphabet

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
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

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.

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