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What is Chiasmus?

Chiasmus is a figure of speech that has two phrases that are parallel and opposite.

If Math and English got married and had a baby, it would be Chiasmus.

 

This literary term can’t work without a little math, but don’t let that scare you! Do you remember when you learned about parallel lines? That’s going to come in handy when understanding how chiasmus works. Chiasmus is a figure of speech that has two phrases that are parallel and opposite. The word “chiasmus” comes from the Greek word “chiázō” which means, “to shape like the letter X.” Here’s where the math comes in. A chiasmus phrase can be taken apart to make the shape of an X, where when read left to right and top to bottom, each point on the X combined reads ABBA. So, the first phrase is AB and the second phrase is BA. The two phrases can be thought of as running parallel because they contain the same information, but they are not identical since the second phrase reverses the first. Many nursery rhymes and children’s songs use chiasmus because its repetition helps the listener remember what they heard. Motivational speakers and politicians also use this technique to their advantage, such as John F. Kennedy’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country.” When using chiasmus in your own writing, it’s helpful to make an X chart like the one pictured above.

 

See if you can catch the chiasmus in these poems.

 

 

Old King Cole

BY ANONYMOUS

Old King Cole

Was a merry old soul,

 And a merry old soul was he;

 

He called for his pipe,

 And he called for his bowl,

 And he called for his fiddlers three!

 

And every fiddler, he had a fine fiddle,

And a very fine fiddle had he.

“Twee tweedle dee, tweedle dee,” went the fiddlers.

 

 Oh, there’s none so rare

 As can compare

 With King Cole and his fiddlers three.

Dream of Ink Brush Caligraphy

BY KAREN AN-HWEI LEE

In prayer:

quiet opening,

my artery is a thin

shadow on paper—

margin of long grass,

ruderal hair, sister to this

not yet part of our bodies

your lyric corpus of seed

in rough drafts of pine ash,

chaogao or grass calligraphy

in rough drafts of pine ash—

your lyric corpus of seed

not yet part of our bodies:

ruderal hair, sister to this

margin of long grass,

shadow on paper,

my artery is a thin

quiet opening

in prayer.

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