By Andrew Neilson
Daniel Groves and Greg Williamson, eds., Jiggery-Pokery Semicentennial (The Waywiser Press, 2016), 112 pp.
Jiggery-Pokery Semicentennial is the successor to the 1967 anthology, edited by Anthony Hecht and John Hollander. Published by Atheneum, the original Jiggery Pokery collected examples of a new poetic form that made its publishing debut the previous year in Esquire magazine. Setting something of a craze for those younger poets still seduced by the pleasures of formalism, the double dactyl was devised over a long lunch at the American Academy in Rome, 1951. Attendant on the scene were Anthony Hecht, the classical scholar Paul Pascal, and Pascal’s wife, Naomi. Hecht lays down the creation myth for the form:
For lunch we had: antipasto, followed by lasagna, saltimbocca alla romana, insalata mista, and a bottle of good Frascati, and ending with what the Italians wittily call “English soup.” I mention these things only because William Empson has recorded a conversation with T. S. Eliot in which Eliot took exception to a report of the kind of cheese he had eaten at lunch with another poet.
Mock-seriousness appears to be the order of the day, although, there is more to that aside about Eliot than meets the eye—as we shall see. For now, it is time to describe the rules of the form. The introduction to the original Jiggery Pokery explains:
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 . . . 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 penultimate line, there must be at least one double dactylic line which is one word long.
There is yet another requirement, which we shall return to in a moment. Such is the infectious nature of the challenge, anyone encountering double dactyls may feel compelled to try their hand at one; this reviewer being no exception. So here is my attempt at a model example of the form:
The Long View
Francis Ford Coppola
Burnished the ’70s
Spielberg and Lucas were
But his apprentices;
Keeps them there yet.
The word “diachronicity’” brings us to the additional requirement mentioned above, which Hecht and Hollander stipulate in their introduction to the original Jiggery Pokery: “once such a double dactylic word has successfully been employed in this verse form, it may never be used again” (my italics). I have no idea whether “diachronicity” meets this requirement, because as the arbiters of the form (or “Regents” as they styled themselves) go on to say:
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.
Tongues firmly in cheeks, the Regents abandoned their disciples to this supposedly time-limited, but practically Sisyphean, task (see a suitable homage from the Semicentennial editors in their lengthy footnote to a poem by Adam Vines). The injunction does at least encourage the more masochistic poet to come up with as original a formulation as she can. In truth, the trickier job is to avoid repeating previous deployments of double dactylic proper names, which has a rather more pressing impact on the poem as a whole. On page 66 of the new anthology, I was not surprised to find Terese Coe also pays her dues to a certain Italian-American film director:
Francis Ford Coppola
Bucked crazy Paramount
Shooting Part I:
Held out for Marlon, who
Clobbered the Moguls and
Answered to none.
Somewhere, in the sunlit halls of Sandover or on the slopes of Parnassus, Hollander and Hecht are now most likely apologizing to a number of their fellow poets, who have been doomed to manifest regularly within the double dactylic form. Thomas Stearns Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, are three particularly frequent flyers, all of whom appear in both anthologies. Could it be that something else lends these hallowed names to the whimsy of the double dactyl?
Or perhaps more acutely, just how whimsical is the form really? To put it another way, how light is “light” verse? How did the double dactyl’s most notable progenitor, Anthony Hecht—whose second collection The Hard Hours (published in the same year as the first Jiggery Pokery) revolves around such subjects as the Holocaust and both marital and mental breakdown—view his created form?
To answer these questions, it is worth turning to the dedicatee of the original anthology, W. H. Auden (who, as Wystan Hughes, narrowly misses out on regular appearances in the form thanks to his trochaic surname). In Anthony Hecht’s study of Auden, The Hidden Law, we find some suitably illuminating passages. Writing about “Letter to Lord Byron,” Hecht draws attention to Auden’s belief that “poetry is fundamentally frivolity,” comparing this to Byron’s similar claim that “the end of all scribblement is to amuse.” These are not, of course, quite the frivolous positions they might seem, as implicit in both statements is a critique of those poets who might think otherwise. Hecht goes on to draw a further parallel, which brings us back to his account of that Roman lunch with the Pascals:
Yet one does not have to be a committed religionist to regard art, and especially High Art, as in danger of pompousness, self-glorification, given to vanities and a foolish reordering of priorities, from which, in Auden’s view, the artist as well as the rest of the world has suffered since at least the beginning of the Romantic movement. In this connection, Auden inclines, rather astutely, to identify Byron not with his contemporaries but with Pope, who[m] both Auden and Byron much admired . . . it is worth remembering that a doctrine very much like this was enunciated by that severest, most austere, most self-denying of poets, T. S. Eliot [who writes], “Poetry is a superior amusement: I do not mean an amusement for superior people.”
While Hecht maintains a studied critical distance in The Hidden Law, it is clear where his sympathies lie—even before we note that Auden and Eliot were the two keenest influences among his immediate forebears. Following this reading, we should be wary of Hecht’s lugubrious creation myth and examine the poems themselves. Is the double dactyl a kind of nonsense form, like the limerick, or something more . . . well, serious? Here is one of Hecht’s poems from the original Jiggery Pokery:
From the Grove Press
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Wroth at Bostonian,
Wrote an unprintable
Based on a volume of
This razor-sharp undercutting of the great Transcendentalist aligns rather neatly with Auden’s view of the Romantic movement more generally. Frivolity can be very serious indeed.
The double dactyl lends itself to such sly work. The early inclusion of a proper name pushes the form into the realm of social, cultural, or political commentary—as by and large the poet will find herself reaching for a famous person (living or dead, factual or fictional) in order to achieve a connection with the reader. The correct way to look at what might be described as the meta-metrical rules of the double dactyl (nonsense beginning; introduction of a proper name; “original” double dactylic word) is not as a fiendish set of conundrums-cum-constraints, but as a range of potential avenues into the poem. This is what makes the double dactyl a true exemplar of poetic form: far from being an apparent jumble of ridiculous rules, it functions as a miniature multi-level platform to both enable and harness creativity.
Reading the Semicentennial anthology, it becomes clear how particular poets follow certain routes into the poem. Natalie Shapero breathes new life into the nonsense opening by departing from the oft-used phrase, “Higgledy-Piggledy”:
Diane von Furstenberg
Gave us a cotton sack
Cinched at the waist,
(“It’s More Than Just a Dress”)
In another example, Jacqueline Osherow casually breaks the fourth wall with her self-referential take on the name dilemma:
Her dactylic name,
(“My Fifteen Minutes”)
Then, you can almost hear the cheers as Michael Griffith slam-dunks (surely!) the puzzle of finding that novel word for the second quatrain. I quote in full to demonstrate the depth of the set-up:
Farewell to the One Lump or Two
Sweet-N-Low wizard who
Pitched us the woo.
Packaging seven grams,
Substance just two.
Rules also exist to be played with. Griffiths’ “saccharo-oligarch” risks the ire of the Regents, who were unsure whether to allow hyphenated words into their form. But as Willard Spiegelman notes in his introduction, the new pioneers of the double dactyl embrace hyphenation fairly widely in a globalized era marked by hybrid identities.
The rules are played with in other ways. William Logan nicely shifts the location of the name in his poem, allowing a new inductee to join the bardic cameos:
Considering the new poems as a whole—and comparing them to the poems in the original anthology—what strikes the reader is the more contemporary edge in political satire. For the poets of the ’60s, the presidents of yesteryear (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Benjamin Harrison, etc.) proved more common subjects. President Trump, despite his dactylic-resistant name, crops up more than once (and in more than one guise) in these new poems.
The Semicentennial’s editors, Daniel Groves and Greg Williamson, are to be praised for bringing so many fine poets together in one volume. It is particularly pleasing to see a contribution from Chris Wallace-Crabbe, who also contributed to Hecht and Hollander’s anthology. I will close with one final double dactyl, by the late J. D. McClatchy, which rather beautifully manages to pay tribute to a Romantic writer without abandoning the essential mischievousness of the form:
Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Wrote hushed libretti for
Noisy Herr Strauss,
Radiant fables that
Lifted the spirit and
Brought down the house.
As it happens, those last two lines are also a fair descriptor for reading Jiggery-Pokery Semicentennial itself.