This is one of those poems. It represents hours of writing and revision time, but if I've done my job properly in crafting it, you shouldn't notice that. You may, in fact, think it "slight." Poetry is like that — the cost of making it nearly always exceeds its value in the marketplace. But I digress. First, the poem; then, a discussion of its form.
Inside the Library
by Kelly R. Fineman
Inside the Library,
Books of all genres are
Found on the shelves
Journals of science and
stories of elves.
Musicians out there, including slatts, lizjonesbooks and more, will immediately work out that this sort of poem is in 6/8 time, and is primarily counted in six (one two three four five six) with strong beats allowing it to be "conducted" in two (since the emphasis is on beats one and four, and the poem is not counted one-and-two-and-three-and). Anyone confused by this particular bit of information need not worry, all will be explained below.
My poem, "Inside the Library", is a form of poem called a double dactyl. This poem is sometimes called a "higgledy piggledy", because it involves nonsense words at the start. But let's not rush ahead.
What is a dactyl?
A dactyl is a type of poetic foot. Nearly everyone who's read Shakespeare is familiar with another sort of foot called the iamb, which has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one: ta-TUM. A dactyl is a three-syllable foot composed of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones, or, as Stephen Fry has it in his wonderful book, The Ode Less Travelled: TUM-titty.
What is a double dactyl?
A double dactyl is a single word made up of two dactyls. It's a six-syllable word in which the first and fourth syllables are stressed. TUM-titty-TUM-titty. Examples: microbiology, gubernatorial, antiestablishment, valedictorian, marketability, extracurricular, etc. Or, in my poem, "autobiography."
What are the rules for the double dactyl form?
1. It opens with gibberish (almost always).
2. The second line of the poem contains the subject of the poem, often a person, but not always.
3. It is composed of two four-line stanzas.
4. The last line of each stanza is made up of a single dactyl followed by a one-syllable word; the rest of the lines have two dactyls each.
5. The single words ending the stanzas must rhyme (e.g., "shelves, elves").
6. It must contain one single-word double dactyl in the second stanza, usually in the 6th or 7th line of the poem.
Any suggestions on how to go about writing one?
Why, I'm glad I asked myself that question. I'm full of suggestions, as this post from 2005 will attest. Only pretty much nobody was reading my blog back then, so if you haven't read it before, I quite understand.
First: Choose your topic, at least in general. For the above poem, I was trying to come up with a poem about books to submit for consideration for a particular anthology. Neither this nor any of the other poems I came up with (different forms and free verse) made it, but that's okay; the fun was in the writing, after all. I started to think about writing a poem to describe what sort of books I might find inside the library. (INside the LIbrary is dactylic, you see, so I opted for this form.)
Second: Brainstorm to figure out possible single-word double dactyls to use in the second stanza. This initially sounds daunting, but trust me, once you get started (playing that TUM-titty-TUM-titty beat in your head), you'll start to come up with some. I decided on autobiography because it's a category of books. Before that point, I'd started writing about different genres of fiction, which I wasn't liking quite as well and for which, moreover, I was unable to arrive at a single-word double dactyl.
Third: Pick your nonsense words. "Higgledy piggledy" are always up for grabs. Other popular ones include "Hey nonny, hey/ho nonny" and "Higgamus Piggamus". For my part, I try to find something a wee bit related to my topic; hence, "Jackety stackety". (Books have jackets, libraries have stacks.)
So, here's the one I free-wrote during that 2005 post on how to write them, interspersed with the writing rules:
Nonsense: Clangety, clattery
Subject: where is my frying pan
Description: I need the one with the
handle that's broke
Start of stanza 2: None of the others are
one-word dd: Super-reliable
They will all ruin my
rhyme w/line 4: fried artichoke.
You can see how that one won't win any prizes, and I toyed with redoing it because the incorrect grammar of "handle that's broke" was really bugging me, but I think it remains a useful demonstration of how the form works. And it's minorly amusing.
Which brings me to my final point: double dactyls are almost always humorous. If you Google "higgledy piggledy", you'll find some excellent ones (and some that are so bawdy as to be blushworthy). Do look for "History Lesson" by Allan Wolf and "Historical Reflections" by John Hollander, both of which can also be found in one of my favorite reference books for form poetry, A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms edited by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka. Also have a look at Theodore S. Drachman's "Small Problem", a slightly bawdy poem about Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, known as the Father of Microbiology. (In addition to being terribly funny, it uses two separate instances of single-word double dactyls, one in each stanza.)