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What is a Double Dactyl Poem?

Updated on July 19, 2014

Double Dactyl - More Than a Limerick

No, a double dactyl isn’t a two-headed prehistoric bird-like reptile that roamed the planet millions of years ago. That would be a double pterodactyl. Completely different.

A double dactyl is a poetry form that some say resembles a limerick – although I doubt those folks have ever attempted the rigidly structured double dactyl – or have ever “reduced” themselves to creating a limerick.

While a double dactyl isn’t the most complicated poetry form out there, it has some very specific rules to follow, and requires a combination of left-brained meter construction to master the form, and right-brained nonsensical whimsy to accomplish the right feel.

In other words, you need to be able to engineer your whimsical wit into a tightly planned architecture. Think Frank Lloyd Wright, but with words.

A double dactyl isn’t that complicated a form to wrap your head around. It’s not always easy to execute, but there’s nothing brain-melting about how these poems are structured. That said, before you read on, you’ll need to have a basic understanding of meter, or rhythmic structure. So if you’ve you read any Shakespeare in school and have a basic idea of what iambic pentameter is, you’ll be fine.

So – let’s break this sucker down first, then look at some examples:

How Do I Write a Double Dactyl?

Line one: Usually repetitive nonsense (but not always) Stressed-unstressed-unstressed, Stressed-unstressed-unstressed (this is also called dactylic dimeter – two poetic feet of dactyls)

Line two: Subject of poem. Stressed-unstressed-unstressed, Stressed-unstressed-unstressed (dactylic dimeter)

Line three: Stressed-unstressed-unstressed, Stressed-unstressed-unstressed

Line four: Rhymes with line 8. Stressed-unstressed-unstressed-Stressed (this is also called a choriamb – four feet with a trochee and an iamb back to back)

Line five: Stressed-unstressed-unstressed, stressed-unstressed-unstressed (dactylic dimeter)

Line six: Same pattern, but is generally one six-syllable word (dactylic dimeter. This is generally the most difficult part of the form)

Line 7: Stressed-unstressed-unstressed, stressed-unstressed-unstressed (dactylic dimeter)

Line 8: Rhymes with line 4. Stressed-unstressed-unstressed-Stressed (choriamb)

If you’re more of a left-brained person – one of those structured, mathematical engineering types, that probably made sense to you. If you’re like me you live a bit more in the right hemisphere of your noggin, and prefer to feel your music rather than dissect it. So let’s plow through a few examples.

(PS: I created a spreadsheet you can use to construct your DD in a more visual way - you can download it here)

Examples of Double Dactyls

This popular self-explanatory meta-double dactyl is a cute way to examine the structure, but I don’t think it captures the fun-loving feel of the form until the second stanza, and even then, the last line feels a bit like a cop out. But it does display the form very nicely:

Long-short-short, long-short-short
Dactyls in dimeter,
Verse form with choriambs
(Masculine rhyme):

One sentence (two stanzas)
Challenges poets who
Don't have the time.

- Roger L. Robison

While I’m not the biggest fan of this one, I do love how they used “hexasyllabically” where the one-worded double dactyl traditionally goes. Fun, just not really fun-NY.

Here’s another famous double dactyl that gets much closer to hitting the nail on the head. You may not laugh out loud at this one, but it’s hard not to crack a smile.

Oedipus Tyrannos
murdered his father, used
mama for sex.

This mad debauch, not so
left poor Jocasta and
Oedipus Wrecks.

- Joan Munkacsi

Note the first line – “Higgledy-piggledy” – which is the most common “nonsense” phrase used in double dactyls. Honestly, I have no idea why - if you do, please share in the comments. In any case, I much prefer the DDs that use their own nonsensical words to kick off the stanza.

And this, one of my personal favorites, is as much fun in subject as it is in form:

Benjamin Harrison,
twenty-third President,
was, and, as such,

Served between Clevelands, and
save for this trivial
didn't do much.

- John Hollander

And finally, as a sad wrap up to these masters of wit, here is my own attempt at a double dactyl:

Popsicle Copcicle
officer Amberson
Laughed at lobotomy
vegetables, too

Icicle avalanche,
karma in action made
idiot stew.

There you have it. Double Dactyls in a nutshell. What say you try your own and share them in the comments, or share some of your personal favorites?

(Don't forget the spreadsheet - it really helps! You can download it here)


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