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Are Acrostics Coming Back as a Political Protest Tool?

Pacific Standard traces a history that includes Alice in Wonderland, Sibylline prophecies, and B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I.
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A science envoy for the Department of State quit his post on Wednesday, submitting a resignation in which the first letters of each paragraph spell out "I-M-P-E-A-C-H," as BuzzFeed reports. His exit follows that of the 17-member President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which quit en masse with a letter that clandestinely spelled out "R-E-S-I-S-T." Both letters cited Trump's response to the violence in Charlottesville last weekend, which critics say came too slowly and suggested a false equivalency between white supremacist demonstrators and antifascist counter-protestors.

Texts that spell out secret messages in their layout are called acrostics; they often come in the form of a poem. Figuring acrostics out can feel thrilling, but in a sort of silly and childish way. One of the best-known modern acrostic poems is Lewis Carroll's "A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky," whose left-hand margin spells the name of the real-life little girl who inspired him to write Alice in Wonderland, which is itself full of poems that play with layout.

Acrostics weren't always just about amusement, however. Their origins are tied up in political commentary. The earliest examples of acrostic poems known today come from ancient Greece, where they were something of a fad. The ancient Roman scholars Cicero and Varro believed that genuine Sibylline oracles—poems that supposedly predicted things like natural disasters, the rise and fall of tyrants, and fiery divine retribution—had to contain acrostics. So the same structure that animated Carroll's Wonderland was also supposed to be a sign of true, often political, prophecy.

Ancient acrostic writers also show us that many modern writers aren't taking full advantage of the form. Check out the poem below, by the third- and fourth-century poet Porfyrius. The poem is in Latin and we couldn't find a translation, but apparently the bolded letters create their own lines of poetry, which this thesis explains: "The way in which one is to read the poem is left perpetually open, allowing each reader to trace the various paths of the letters and verses."

Screenshot showing a square poem by Porfyrius, from The Politics of Interpretation: Language, Philosophy, and Authority in the Carolingian Empire (775-820).

Screenshot showing a square poem by Porfyrius, from The Politics of Interpretation: Language, Philosophy, and Authority in the Carolingian Empire (775-820).

Maybe acrostic texts are on the path for a more sustained comeback in American political commentary. A few years ago, during the Obama administration, we noticed an acrostic trend that combined the silly and the political: Tweets that spelled "B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I" vertically, used first by conservatives who thought the government was covering up wrongdoing that led to the 2012 terrorist attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, then by liberals to poke fun at what they saw as conspiratorial thinking.

In an analysis, Gawker said the format of BENGHAZI tweets was "vacuous" and "inane" but ultimately effective. Acrostics have a child's sense of play alongside the force of madness, political resistance, and prophecy.