Jiggery Pokery


I had intended to post on Naguib Mahfouz's Palace of Desire today, but it sometimes seems that we live in a brilliant, unpredictable universe. And one support for that impression is that David and I received in the mail from a friend of ours who is a big proponent of doggerel verse, a package containing Anthony Hecht's and John Hollander's Jiggery Pokery: a Compendium of Double Dactyls. Previously familiar with Hecht only as the author of the Matthew Arnold satire "Dover Bitch," I was pleasantly and hilariously surprised to make his acquaintance and that of Hollander in such verses as the following (by Hollander):


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

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

Or this one (by Hecht):


Mme. de Maintenon
Shouted, "Up yours!" when ap-
Proached for the rent,

And, in her anger, pro-
Ceeded to demonstrate,
Just what she meant.

Double dactyls have the following rules, as outlined by Hecht and Hollander (a dactyl, for those who don't know, is a three-syllable poetic foot with the first syllable stressed and the second two unstressed):

  • The poem is composed of two stanzas, each with three lines of two dactyls each followed by a fourth, four-syllable line that begins with a dactyl;
  • The first line must be a double dactyl of nonsense language;
  • The second line must be the name of the subject;
  • The final lines of the two stanzas must rhyme;
  • Somewhere in the second stanza there must be a line made up entirely of a single, double-dactylic word ("iconographically," for example).

Hecht and Hollander also argue that any six-syllable word, once used in a double dactyl, can never be used in a different one, although Wikipedia maintains that only hardcore double-dactyl purists still hold to this requirement. This seems like a lot of rules, but once you start reading these little gems your brain begins to incorporate them almost unconsciously; the double-dactyl line is extremely catchy.

And in fact, between the uproarious Introduction, the delightfully tongue-in-cheek footnotes, and the addictive poems themselves, Jiggery Pokery unexpectedly comandeered my entire afternoon. Of course, the side effect of reading sing-song dactylic verse for hours at a time is that the meter gets horribly stuck in one's head, and one starts noticing double dactyls all over the house and in one's normal speech. In the shower I found myself chanting "Birch bark and chammomile, / Deep Cleansing Wash," and both David and I keep bursting out with examples of promising six-syllable words apropos of nothing in particular. ("Sesquicentennial!" "Homogeneity!") Needless to say, the next stage was to begin composing our own examples; also needless to say, mine were all about books.


Fletteridge metteridge
Gabriel Betteridge
tells a romance with the
aid of Defoe;

The diamond's locational
somewhat assuaged by his
pipe and Bordeaux.

I imagine "discontinuity" has already been used, by someone somewhere in a double dactyl, but I don't specifically remember it from the book. Here's one on my recent reading:


Hop-a-lide, pop-a-lide,
Mike of the Mountainside
'way from his wife, to his
tower confined,

Erstwhile Bordelais
Aired his opinions, and
then changed his mind.

They are very addictive! And also surprisingly difficult. It's hard to find a good use for that single-word line when you have so few syllables to work with. Very fun, though. This last one is just about the dorkiest joke ever; the first time my friend Alan started talking about Austrian educational and agricultural innovator Rudolph Steiner (which Alan went through a phase of doing quite frequently), I mis-heard him with funny results.


Old Donji Kraljevec,
Kingdom of Hungary,
Offers a breakfast that's
truly advanced:

All of the produce grown
Waldorf school day care on
hand for the staff.


  • Thank you, you have lifer a very grey morning. I could never even begin to write anything like this myself, but you are quite correct, that metre is going to be going round in my head all day. Goodness only knows what effect that will have on this afternoon's lecture on 'Titus Andronicus'!

  • Entrepreneurial! Sociopolitic! Morbidobesity! Psychoanalysis! Tyrannosaurical!

    You're right, it changes everything.

  • This sounds so wonderful - I can see why you were commandeered!

  • Wow. This is certainly more amusing than Palace of Desire. As I read through the post, saw how this could become addictive. But harder than it appears. Must go try.

  • Oh Emily, I think you may have found your calling as a double dactyl poet! :)

  • My first try:
    All our first ancestors
    Lived in a world that was
    Harsh and was cruel.

    If you think they came from
    Africa thinks you’re a
    Dunce and a fool.

    That was fun! I think it might be easiest to start with your one-word line and go from there, or at least that's what I did.

    • YAY, excellent job! I hoped people would write them in the comments. I agree about starting with the six-syllable word, either that or with the name - getting a good pairing of those two is key.

  • My brain hurts a little from trying to keep the rules straight - and I haven't even begun to try to compose one! Thanks for sharing - very fun.

  • I've written one - I couldn't resist! Thanks for the fun distraction! My poem.

  • Bravo! These are marvellous! When the rhythm is just right they have that toe-tingling quality that is so delightful. I'm not sure I could do one myself but I do have the word 'sesquipedalian' going round and round in my head now!

  • I love double dactyls. I like this one:

    Pattycake, pattycake,
    Marcus Antonius,
    What do you think of the
    African queen?

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

    BA HA. That has been my favorite for many a year.

  • Here's one I wrote about the book I just reviewed. Wow, this is fun, and I love the ones you've written about the books you've reviewed!

    Flibberty gibberty
    Sir Ernest Shackleton
    Asked all his crewmen to
    Freeze for the cause;

    Answer was humble but
    Insisting their contract
    Provided for thaws.

    • HAHAHA, that's an awesome one! Really, really good. My partner's father has penchants both for doggerel verse and for polar expedition stories; I will have to send it his way. :-)

  • From a bar in Washington, DC, in the mid 70s:

    Higgledy Piggledy
    President LBJ
    Thought of retiring
    Decided he could.

    McCarthy, Kennedy
    Two rebel democrat
    convinced him he should.

  • You just had to link to this post didn't you?! My brain wouldn't let me do anything else until I'd given it a go...I don't think the rhythm's quite there, but at least now I'll be able to accomplish other things today. ;)

    Queenly Marie thought to
    offer some pastry to
    substitute bread;

    France, as a brotherhood,
    answered quite loudly, and
    "Off with her head!"

  • Her full name is like a reverse double dactyl: Queen Marie Antoinette. So if I can break the rules a little, it'd go:

    Lemony, limoney,
    Queen Marie Antoinette
    offered some pastry to
    substitute bread;

    France, as a brotherhood,
    answered quite loudly, and
    "Off with her head!"

    I think that flows better, even if it's not quite standard.

    • Oh yay, it makes me so happy when people start writing these. Undiplomatically! Awesome. I think "Queen Marie Antoinette" is totally valid. The thing about a small poem with so many rules, is that up to a point the funniest way to write them is to break a few. :-)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography