Double Double, Part 1 (Dactyls)

Cody Walker
November 22, 2010
Comments 3

I’ve been seeing double lately — which, considering the assignments I’ve been giving my students, makes sense. One class has been writing double dactyls; the other class, double abecedarians. My original idea was to combine my thoughts on the two forms into a single post — a kind of double double — but then those thoughts led to more thoughts (and more poems, and more links) . . . and, as this Sunday’s New York Times reminds us (and then sort of takes back), we’re becoming increasingly bad at, well, focusing. So, let’s take up double dactyls now, and double abecedarians in another week.

In Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls, Anthony Hecht provides an account of the form’s origin. The date was November 3, 1951; the location was the American Academy in Rome. Hecht had become friends with a fellow Fellow, the classical scholar Paul Pascal, and Pascal’s wife, Naomi. The three shared lunch on this November afternoon (“antipasto, followed by lasagna, saltimbocca alla romana, insalata mista, and a bottle of good Frascati”), and then the talk circled back to poetry. To jump ahead: “By the end of the afternoon we had hammered out the nature and details of the form. Neither of us could have foreseen, in those early days, the success and celebrity that would attend upon us many years later when the Double Dactyl made its first public appearance in the June, 1966 issue of Esquire.” Hecht’s tongue, like his saltimbocca, is firmly in cheek — but in a way he’s right. Of forms invented over the past century or so, which ones have proved more durable than the double dactyl? Maybe only the clerihew.

To describe the form, I’ll defer to Hecht and John Hollander (from their co-authored Introduction to Jiggery-Pokery):

The form itself, as it was determined that November day in Rome, is composed of two quatrains, of which the last line of the first rhymes with the last line of the second. All the lines except the rhyming ones, which are truncated, are composed of two dactylic feet. The first line of the poem must be a double dactylic nonsense line, like “Higgledy-piggledy,” or “Pocketa-pocketa” (this last, of course, borrowed from “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”). The second line must be a double dactylic name. And then, somewhere in the poem, though preferably in the second stanza, and ideally in the antepenultimate line, there must be at least one double dactylic line which is one word long. (Foreign languages may be employed, and indeed there is a hope that this form will restore macaronic verse to the dignity it has not enjoyed since the Late Middle Ages.) But, and the beauty of the form consists chiefly in this, once such a double dactylic word has successfully been employed in this verse form, it may never be used again.

Two things follow from this. One: that there must be an approved canon of Double Dactyls by which it may be established what words have already been eliminated. Two: that presently, and probably very soon, the entire supply of double dactylic words in all languages will have been exhausted, bringing the form to its ultimate demise.

The idea of a form with a built-in self-destruct button is great fun — though I wouldn’t take the conceit seriously. My students spent the past week jiggering (and pokering) Jennifer Aniston, Pamela Anderson, and other Esquire favorites; the form hoof-beats ahead. George Starbuck’s “Troves for the Natives of 1992” is a post-Compendium ten-stanza double-dactyl tour de force (Starbuck being five times wittier than the rest of us), and Wendy Cope’s “Emily Dickinson” has a permanent place in the Light Verse canon.

I’ve tried, at times, to use the form for serious purposes. Here’s a bit of post-9-11 working-through:

Snow, nor Rain

[Name not released as yet]
Handled the envelopes
Twenty-odd years.

Anthrax bacillus spores,
Killed him on Saturday.
Send him your tears.

I’ve also dragged the form into the realm of the confessional, as this double-double dactyl, from Michael Schiavo’s new Equalizer series, shows.

(Regarding the suspicious-looking hyphens in each example, let’s return again to Hollander and Hecht: “Then there is the delicate problem of hyphens. While the Regents at present feel that hyphens may be used quite freely in this form, they have not yet determined how censorious to be about hyphenated double-dactylic words. A decision on this point is hoped for at our next convocation.” And then, in a footnote: “Wise money would probably bet against their being admitted. It is only by maintaining rigorous standards that one can, as it were, hope to maintain rigorous standards.”)

Let’s end with my five favorites from the original anthology. If sketches by Milton Glaser come to mind as you read them, so much the better:


Patty-cake, patty-cake,
Marcus Antonius
What do you think of the
African Queen?

Duties require my
Presence in Egypt. Ya
Know what I mean?

– Paul Pascal


From the Grove Press

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Wroth at Bostonian,
Cowardly hints,

Wrote an unprintable
Based on a volume of
Japanese prints.

– Anthony Hecht


Historical Reflections

Benjamin Harrison,
Twenty-third President,
Was, and, as such,

Served between Clevelands, and
Save for this trivial
Didn’t do much.

– John Hollander



Thomas A. Edison
Turned on a switch with a
Wave of his wand,

Giving his name to some
Chaps in whose light we are
Now being Conned.

– Sally Belfrage


No Foundation

John Simon Guggenheim,
Honored wherever the
Muses collect,

Save in the studies (like
Mine) which have suffered his
Shocking neglect.

– John Hollander


3 thoughts on “Double Double, Part 1 (Dactyls)

  1. Maybe no one will ever see this, but I’ve just written one and have been searching for a place to wire it up.

    Hominus Romanus,
    Otto of Saxony,
    Primeval patriarch,
    Dynastic source:

    Not merely known for its
    His name was steeped with im-
    perial force.

  2. Pingback: December 4, 2010 | Poetry News in Review

  3. I’d hoped for examples of your students’ poems. Alas, here’s a submission from an ex-student:

    Divine Renovation

    Hickory, dickory
    Emperor Hadrian
    Cast a new Pantheon;
    Concrete was piled.

    Eminent architect,
    Sought the advice of birds.
    All the gods smiled.

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