LEXICAL PLAY: The Alphabet Poem & the I RO HA Song

Taylor Mignon - Profile PhotoBy Taylor Mignon (Nihon University)


The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

I read an alphabet poem by Ray Craig published side by side with the いろは歌 (I Ro Ha song) in the bilingual journal Ko-e. Both works were published in English and Japanese. This gave me the idea of using both for writing activities. The Alphabet Poem is the ideal primer for writers before composing their own version of the 11th century I Ro Ha, using each character in the syllabary exactly once for both activities. These exercises encourage the discovery of new vocabulary through hunting words in references, as well as language-acquisition in new contexts. They both stretch the writer’s imagination by attempting to link the words into distinct narratives. I Ro Ha involves literary translation from Japanese to English. The translation of the I Ro Ha below is by Minato Keiji.

Flowers flourish

but to dissipate;

my life or any other’s

will not last.

Over Mt. Phenomena

today I go

dreaming empty dreams

not inebriated

     Further investigation revealed that the I Ro Ha song (and possibly the Alphabet Poem, though it might be divided into sentences), is an example of the pangram, or holoalphabetic sentence, which is a sentence using every syllable of the alphabet at least once. The quote heading this introduction is exemplary. It repeats the letter “o” three times and the letter “u” twice.

Alphabet Poem


Step One: Write your own impromptu Alphabet Poem on the blackboard without explanation, or have it prepared beforehand.

Step Two: Have students discover what the method or technique of the composition is.

Step Three: Show examples of the types of words that can be used: place names, such as the Japanglish of “Abakuro,” and exotic place names “Ypsilanti;” people, “X-men” or things; how port manteau and creative misspelling should be encouraged ― “umbilicalism” ― and how since there are so few X-words that words beginning with the letter “E,” preceding the “X” should be dropped, as in “xfoliate.” One example of port manteau is how proper names could be turned into verbs, for example from Zoolander to Zoolandalize. Show how by adding a suffix to a word, you essentially are inventing a new word: “xenophile-less.”

Step Four: Show examples of how punctuation can be manipulated, for example for “N” “nostrils’re,” so the writer takes advantage of the disguised be-verb.

Step Five: Writers begin to prepare their dictionaries and writing materials to begin composing the Alphabet Poem.

Step Six: Encourage writers to affix an original title instead of the generic “Alphabet Poem.”

Step Seven: Make sure the alphabeteers check their spelling and make sure that every word of the alphabet is included, without oversight.

Step Eight: Successful writers then translate theirs into Japanese.

Student-generated Writings: Alphabet Poems


Nihon University

Angelic bear catch dead eagles.

Foxes get hamster in jungles.

Kangaroos & lonely monkeys need oranges.

Pretty queen-ants run.

Strong tigers usually venture.

Wrong X-men yawn @ zoos.









Nihon University

Aardvarks Braai Chickens,

Dogs & Eagles. Finally,

Galileo Hacks Information.

Jobless Kevin Loaches

Makeup, Nags Oasis.

Philip Quails Running

Symbols. Tactfully Umbrellas

Vacantly Waddle. Xylitol

Yeary Zings.









Nihon University

Abracadabra Balances Calculators.

Dabblers Eager for Fables.

Gabblers Habituate Idealism.

Jabberwocky Kills Laboring Macroeconomics.

Narrators Obscure Pageants.

Quaffs Radicalize Sahara.

Taboos Uglify Vagabonds.

Wacky Xanadu Yields Zombis.




Step One: Students write their own original I Ro Ha poem, or explain it as a short story.

Step Two: The writers translate their works into English.

Step Three: Three parts of the work comprise the whole: the English translation, the katakana-only version and the standard Japanese version including Chinese ideograms.

Step Four: Each scrivener/translator adds an original title.

Notes: if writers prefer to use the two Classical Japanese katakana characters, they may. Those characters are “we” and “wi.”

Another option is rather than students create a narrative, they may choose to write a more humorous list instead, as Akane does below.

Student-generated Writings: I Ro Ha Song


Daito Bunka University


The sky and night and thickening fog,

And roofs, canals, her house and boots,

The sun and shoal and sand are there.

But there is nobody else in the town.

So little girl, who lives on the sea feels lonely.

Please give her sweet eyelid a butterfly’s kiss.

空 夜 濃霧

屋根 堀 我家

靴 陽 瀬 砂はあれど


沖小女童 寂し

花瞼へ 蝶を

そら よる のうむ

やね ほり わいえ

くつ ひ せ すなはあれと


おきこめろ さみし

かけんへ てふを



Nihon University

Stay indoors and fool around, like tatters.

The weather will hold clear forever, the dark red sky.

Shed tears and moisten the hands.

I have only the ability to watch the world collapse

on the day of “performing a Buddhist rite”

and pray peace to one’s ashes







Daito Bunka University

You are Gone

Your return looks sad

Now I don’t go with you

My mind in deep grief

I will sleep after all

Go to dream, like silence

あなた は かえる そのせ さみしく

いま とんで ゐけぬ われ

きもち ひつう

やはり ねむろほ

こゑ を おすように ゆめ へ

貴方 は 帰る その背 寂しく

今 飛んで 行けぬ 我

気持ち 悲痛

やはり 眠ろう

声 を 押すように 夢 へ



Daito Bunka University

Ogre & Reo

The madder color of the sky, Minuma rice fields, Hanadome, ukiyo-e, dew, a ruby, Suwa, a rice cake, a room, a flute, an orge, Reo, closing one’s country to outsiders, an insect, a cicely, the weather.




Taylor Mignon is a poet and creative writing teacher. His newest book is a collection of translations from the Japanese.  http://highmoonoon.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=H&Product_Code=BCPB&Category_Code=B

He’s currently completing a textbook on creative writing for university students.