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Inside the Library -- a Poetry Friday post

Today, I'm doing something I rarely do — posting an original poem. Even though I write quite a lot of poems, I don't usually share here because I remain hopeful that someday, I'll be able to sell them. Even though that remains an extremely remote possibility. Which means that the only ones I'd be willing to part with for free are the ones that are less than wonderful, if you catch my drift.

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

Jackety Stackety
Inside the Library,
Books of all genres are
Found on the shelves

History, Mystery,
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.)

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( 49 comments — Leave a comment )
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(Deleted comment)
Oct. 12th, 2007 02:51 pm (UTC)
From your mouth to God's ear, Susan.

That bit you love came to me this morning, because it's so very true. If you write bad poems, people despise you. If you write excellent ones, they assume it was easy (because easy to read must mean easy to write). You and I know how very wrong that assumption is, but I'm sure you've felt it too!
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Oct. 12th, 2007 03:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - liz_scanlon - Oct. 12th, 2007 03:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Oct. 12th, 2007 06:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 12th, 2007 02:44 pm (UTC)
dactyl also means finger or toe - so it's interesting that it means foot in poetry.

Thanks for your Poetry Fridays!
Oct. 12th, 2007 02:49 pm (UTC)
The poetic term gets its name from the Greek word. Well-spotted, Liz!!
Oct. 12th, 2007 03:00 pm (UTC)
Love both of them -- I think if I wanted to (spend tons of time), I could really get into all the different forms of poetry and rules...I love playing with words like this (though I'm not nearly as clever) :D
Oct. 12th, 2007 03:19 pm (UTC)
All it takes is a little time and the willingness to play.
Oct. 12th, 2007 03:25 pm (UTC)
Kelly, Kelly, Kelly! You should post your own poetry more often. This is totally and utterly delightful...
Oct. 12th, 2007 03:29 pm (UTC)
I agree!
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Oct. 12th, 2007 06:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Oct. 12th, 2007 06:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 12th, 2007 06:27 pm (UTC)
Oh dear -- but the discussion should have made it not seem terrifyingly hard. Does it come off as too complicated?

And about the cost of poetry: for many if not most poets, the cost is still higher than any value placed on it by others, even of the nonmonetary sort. First, they don't usually end up with anyone memorizing their stuff (or even reading it, let alone appreciating it); and secondly, well, most folks trivialize poetry. Nevermind that they're willing to acknowledge the greatness of some poets or poems (Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night", etc.), many folks don't honor the poets among them, or value their work product. And yet, I'd love to think that someone, somewhere, will value my work in that way.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Oct. 12th, 2007 07:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 12th, 2007 03:33 pm (UTC)
Great post, Teach...

Gunna try to take this one as an assignment for maybe next week's Poetry Friday....

And you give me more credit than I'm worth...I don't really know 6/8 time...I'm sure I've played it unknowingly but I couldn't call it. I'm a jungle musician. I hear something. I try to repeat it. If I don't get it but I'm happy with my take of it--done deal!
Oct. 12th, 2007 06:30 pm (UTC)
If you recite the poems above aloud, you'll hear it, for sure. And I hope you'll look for the poems I listed. The bawdy one is at the Wikipedia listing for double dactyl, as it turns out.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 12th, 2007 06:32 pm (UTC)
I think you'll like it. I've written two thus far (the other one is actually better, in my opinion, which is why it's not here). Or rather, three if you count the fried artichoke one.

And thanks for the encouragement on my form posts. I adore working in forms, and it's fun to try to simplify and pass them along. If one person tries a new form, it's worth it.
Oct. 12th, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC)
Interesting post. Thanks! (And I really shouldn't be reading here at all. I've got so much I should be doing. But you distracted me!)

I'm sure I've read some nonsense poems with this form. Who has done some of them? Ogden Nash? Dorothy Parker? Edward Lear?

Gotta get back to my workshop critiques...
Oct. 12th, 2007 06:40 pm (UTC)
Not Lear - this particular form was invented during the 20th century. The primary book on it is Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls, edited by Anthony Hecht & John Hollander. It came out in 1967. Hecht is one of the inventors of the form, along with a man named Paul Pascal.
Oct. 12th, 2007 04:16 pm (UTC)
thank you!
There was soooo much I loved in this post. My head is spinning with its sounds I want to try to duplicate... but can't. But hope you'll just take this unpoetic but heartfelt tribute.
Oct. 12th, 2007 06:42 pm (UTC)
Re: thank you!
Thank you for your kind words.

If you want to give it a go, try starting with something like this:

Higgledy piggledy
Thanks to Anne Hutchinson
. . .
Oct. 12th, 2007 04:27 pm (UTC)
If I keep reading your posts, I'm going to become the smartest person in the world. Loved this discussion of form, Kelly, and your poem was delightful. I agree with everyone else, that you should do a book on poetic forms, using your original work as examples. I think I will speak in dactyls all day in your honor.
Oct. 12th, 2007 06:54 pm (UTC)
Dear Jama Rattigan
You are too kind to me
Off'ring to dactylize
All of the day;

If you're not careful, your
will drive your neighbors to
send you away.

Or something. :)
(no subject) - jamarattigan - Oct. 12th, 2007 09:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Oct. 13th, 2007 11:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 12th, 2007 04:42 pm (UTC)
Can I just say that you are amazing? Okay? Thanks.

You are amazing.
Oct. 12th, 2007 06:55 pm (UTC)
Aww. Thanks, Tracy.
Oct. 12th, 2007 07:43 pm (UTC)
Look at you---posting an original, then totally using it to teach! I never dare to do that. I just toss mine out there and hope they don't tank.

Question: Why in the world does posting a poem at your blog make it ineligible for sale? It's not like kids are reading it here! Or are they? Also, don't you automatically own the copyright to everything you post, so you haven't given ANY rights away, now have you? I could see there being a problem if you posted it on someone else's blog, or newsletter or e-zine, but your own blog? Who said so? I want a lawyer! :)

Sara Lewis Holmes
Oct. 12th, 2007 07:53 pm (UTC)
I believe it counts as publication, unless I only send it to a restricted list. Some publishers and journals don't mind, but some do.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Oct. 12th, 2007 08:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Oct. 12th, 2007 08:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 12th, 2007 09:08 pm (UTC)
How cool is this? I saw the poem form double dactyl on Poetry Foundation, but they didn't have any of these poems on the site. The words double dactyl totally made me smile, but I didn't have time to find out what it was...and here you are with a fun poem and lesson. Love it. Thank you!
Oct. 12th, 2007 09:44 pm (UTC)
You're welcome! It's a fun (and often funny) form!
Oct. 12th, 2007 09:53 pm (UTC)
I heart your double dactyl!!!
Oct. 12th, 2007 09:56 pm (UTC)
I should enlist your help in figuring out what the rhyme scheme is for the PB I just sent out. I know I'm channeling something from childhood, but I have no idea what it is! It doesn't map to any scheme I can think of, but it does seem to work.
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Oct. 13th, 2007 11:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lizjonesbooks - Oct. 13th, 2007 11:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Oct. 13th, 2007 11:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 12th, 2007 11:20 pm (UTC)
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. You could try changing it to past tense: "...the one with the handle that broke." RM1(SS) (ret)
Oct. 13th, 2007 09:59 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Old Coot!
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