Friday, August 23, 2013

Poetry Friday - John Hollander's Double Dactyls

John Hollander - Imagine studying poetry with this man....

Last Saturday, when I heard that the poet John Hollander had died, I pulled several of his books off my shelves to look through them and think about his work, which I've grown to love more and more over the years. I had a flirtation with it early on, due to the double dactyl form he invented with Anthony Hecht, another favorite poet of mine. The flirtation deepened when I began to read his more serious work, which I recommend to everyone (just look at "Adam's Task.")   But today, I want to stay focused on those double dactyls.

The definition of a double dactyl sounds simple: eight lines of two dactyls each, arranged in two quatrains. The first line of the poem must be nonsense (like “Higgledy-piggledy” or “Jiggery-pokery”) and the second line must be a name; the fourth and eighth lines are dactyls followed by spondees, and they rhyme; and one line of the poem (often the 6th or 7th) must be a single six-syllable word. Of course, the killer in that list of must-haves is the six-syllable word in dactylic meter, and the whole poem hinges on how clever that word is. Some say that the word cannot have been used before (never, ever) in any other double dactyl. Here's a wonderful example by poet George Starbuck (whose work I take a look at in the August issue of Numero Cinq. ) Notice that Starbuck, not to be outdone by anyone in terms of technical control, comes up with two six-syllable words in that second stanza:

Higgledy piggledy
Fifty Columbuses,
Fifty times richer in
Trinkets and beads

Couldn’t provision the
Business’s needs.

Here is one of Hollander's own; it's typical of his light-verse with a dark twist: 

Higgeldy, piggeldy,

Anna Karenina

Went off her feed and just

Couldn't relax.

Then, quite ignoring the


Threw in the sponge and was

Scraped off the tracks.

And here is one where he actually wrote a double dactyl about how to write double dactls:

Self Reference 

Starting with nonsense words:
  then comes a name (making
  line number two);
Somewhere along in the 
  terminal quatrain, a
  word and we're through. 
Hecht and Hollander published a whole book of these silly and delightful poems titled Jiggery Pokery, which inspired a whole generation of MFA students with equally silly souls (I include myself) to try their hand at them. I challenge readers of The Drift Record to write a double dactyl and leave it in the comments - in honor of John Hollander! Come on! Do it! Doesn't have to be about John Hollander or about anything specific to poetry - just a double dactyl about anyone (as long as that someone's name is dactylic!)
The Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted this week by Betsy at I Think in Poems. Head over there to see what other people have posted.


  1. I'm confused...How come the higgledy piggledy example doesn't have a 6-syllable word?

  2. I LOVE the double-dactyl - so much fun! And these, by Hollander, are delightful! I'll try to come up with one but no promises. I've only been able to write dds without names, so far, and that's breaking the rules, isn't it? :)

  3. I assume Hollander pronounced the word "Didaktyliaios" this way: di-dak-tyl-i-ai-os, enunciating the "i" as a long "e" and the "ai" as a long "i" or long "a." Either way, it's a clever six syllables. If you miss the little "i," before the "ai," it might look like you pronounce those last three syllables as two ("lay-os") but there are definitely three, even if you split it this way: di-dak-ty-li-ai-os.

  4. Kevan, I assume that's the word you were questioning. The other poems have single words that are clearly six syllables - quinquecentennjal, memorabilia, unsuitability.....

  5. BJ - Maybe what's tripped you up is a search for a name that is perfectly dactylic, like AN-na-ka-RE-ni-na. But notice that Starbuck took a name which is not dactylic (Col-UM-bus) and turned it dactylic by adding words and pluralizing (FIF-ty-co-LUM-bus-es)- that's not breaking the rules, just stretching them, right?

  6. Wow, it doesn't sound simple to me! These are great -- I had never heard of this form. Hope someone is brave enough to try it! :-)

  7. This sounds like so much fun! Love the word play. Thanks for sharing a new poet that I'm sure to enjoy.

  8. OK, Julie! I wrote you/John Hollander this. It's pretty early so I couldn't get the syllables right at the end.

    Higgledy piggledy
    Nik Rimsky-Korsakov
    fairy tale composer

    Wrote tunes maidenly and
    capriciously, with flight-
    -y bees to spare.

    (Referring to Snow Maiden, Scheherazade, Capriccio Espagnol, and Flight of the Bumblebees)

  9. Holy Cannoli! I'm going to have to pass on this challenge! (but I'll bookmark your post for future reference!!)

  10. I think maybe I made the rules sound too intimidating! Tabatha, thanks for picking up the gauntlet and giving it a try - love how you got all those reference in!!

    I'm going to tackle my own challenge and write a double dactyl here, slightly off-color:

    Jiggery pokery
    Poor Andrew Weiner, he
    lived through his teen years with
    that awful name.

    Lost to the clutches of
    cybertechnology -
    Weiner's a wanker and
    that name's to blame.

  11. Hilarious dd on current events -- what a fun way to mix social studies and creative writing for older students. I see a lot of possibilities in this challenging form! Thanks for introducing me to the poetic art of double dactyls.

  12. Keri - I completely agree about its usefulness in a social studies class. Quite a collection could be put together of current events viewed through the humorous lens of a double dactyl!

  13. Wow, I am so impressed with this challenge and that some of you took it! I'm with Mary Lee, may have to pass for now, but could be future fun!

  14. I couldn't resist the challenge, Julie - but is it possible to write one of these that ISN'T off color? :)


    Skippitov tippitov
    Mikhail Baryshnikov
    kept all his dancing stars
    high on their toes.

    Playing on beauty, he
    roused all his primas to
    rip off their clothes.

  15. Wonderful, Renee! WELL DONE! And you're right - there's something about this form that (like the limerick) nudges you towards the risque.

  16. P.S. Renee - I love the Russian nonsense "Skippitov tippitov" - perfect!

  17. Thanks, Julie! Couldn't resist the nonsense...!

  18. These are all wonderful! Renee and Julie- you naughty girls- your poems are hilarious! Here's my attempt- based loosely on a nursery rhyme:

    Fiddle dee, diddle dee,
    Bumblebee, bride-to-be
    Went to the chapel to
    Marry the fly.

    Fly left the Bumblebee
    Lone at the altar- that
    Cold-footed guy.

    Thanks so much for steering me this way, Renee (via David's blog)

  19. Fantastic, iza!! Thanks for the contribution. Perfectly done, and I'm loving the new nonsense words!

  20. Sugar Ray

    Sugar Ray Robinson
    1921 – 1989
    “Pound for pound,” ranked as
    “the greatest boxer of all time”

    Sugar Ray Robinson
    Fought so ferociously—
    Thunder for hands,

    He was the classiest
    Fighter to fans.

  21. Very funny, Iza!

    Julie, I alerted David Harrison to your post and he re-posted here:

  22. Alas, I fear I am not up to your challenge... at least not here, as I sit in the car repair waiting room... waiting, that is, to hand over all my money. (Maybe I should right a double dactyl about that!) Loved all of the ones that have been posted here though!

  23. Pat, you're pretty cunning and charming yourself! Thanks for joining in.

    And Michelle, ouch, I hate car repairs, here's a double dactyl for us:

    pity Joe Citizen
    waiting to pay for the
    latest repair -

    valve jobs and spark plugs prove
    raising his hair.

    (Oh, gosh, that's really terrible. Shame on me.)

  24. Oops - that should be "antipoetical"!

  25. Delightful, Julie. And thanks for the visit to my place. David

  26. This is from a "famous moments in sports" anthology I haven't gotten off the ground yet.


    Hippity Pippity
    Billie Jean King
    Beat Bobby Riggs
    And made him eat crow.

    Smashed gender barriers
    So women and men
    Could stand toe to toe.

  27. Pigs in a Blanket

    Pigs in a blanket are
    warm as they would be if
    lying all snugly in
    mama’s straw bed.

    humans prefer their pigs
    rolled up in pancakes with
    syrup instead.

  28. Ha! Good one, Julie! I often do things auto-combustively, so I can relate. :)

  29. Thanks so much for making me feel better about emptying my bank account yesterday. Somehow, your double dactyl made it seem almost worthwhile. ;) And here's a bonus-- you've convinced me to write one of my own!


    Piggledy Jiggledy
    Jolly Saint Nicholas
    choked on his Ho Ho and
    fell to the floor.

    Baffling, laughable,
    Elves know that Santa liked
    Twinkies much more.

    And here's another bonus-- now I have something to post for PF tomorrow! Thanks for the push. :)

  30. BJ, Michelle and Charles - hooray, hooray and hooray!! What fun it's been, seeing all these double dactyls, and honoring John Hollander with them. I can feel him smiling down on us & our antics.

    Thanks to all of you! (and if there are more of you in the mood to do this, definitely dive in, higgeldy piggeldy.)

  31. This one's not mine; it appeared in a magazine competition in the '70s. Unfortunately, I can't remember it verbatim, so I've fiddled it where memory fails.

    Higgledy piggledy
    Oedipus King of Thebes
    Murdered his daddy and
    Used mum for sex.

    The fallout effect on their
    Made both Jocasta and
    Oedipus Rex.

  32. Another one, from the same competition, with similar memory failures.

    Pontifex Maximus
    Dancing along to the
    Vatican rag,

    Said, 'Mother's feeling her
    In this delicious
    Pontifical drag.'

    1. ...and even more brilliant! Thanks for posting them.

  33. Thanks for this excellent page.

    Suddenly I understand the weird chorus format of Irish band Duckhouse Lewis Method's excellent cricket song Jiggery Pokery:

    It was jiggery pokery, trickery, jokery.
    How did he open me up?
    Robbery, muggery, Aussie skullduggery.
    Out for a buggering duck.

    What a delivery,
    I might as well have been,
    holding a contra bassoon.
    Jiggery pokery who was this nobody,
    making me look a buffoon?
    Like a blithering old buffoon.

    (full lyrics, YouTube clip.)

    1. Oh, my god, John, that is a knock out song. I'd never heard it before - thanks so much for posting it here.