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Double Dactyl Poetry

Write a double dactyl poem in honor of National Grammar Day.

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
February 23, 2017
Episode #557

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Next week is National Grammar Day once again! In what has become an NGD tradition, grammar lovers have been using Twitter to submit their entries in the annual National Grammar Day haiku contest. Actually, like this podcast, these haiku cover not only grammar, but also word usage, punctuation, pronunciation, and writing style. That’s OK, though; we cast a wide net here, and everything that’s both interesting and language-related is fair game. 

This year, though, I’d like to invite you to work with another short form of poetry, called the double dactyl

What’s a Dactyl?

To understand what a double dactyl is, you first need to know what a dactyl is. It’s not an extinct flying reptile; that’s a pterodactyl. However, if you translate the Greek roots that make up pterodactyl, you get “wing finger.” So dactyl means “finger,” but what do fingers have to do with poetry? True, you do use your fingers to write poetry, but that’s true of poetry in general. The more relevant answer is that a dactyl is a sequence of three syllables: a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. For example, the word holiday is a dactyl as are genesis and poetry. Are you getting the rhythm?

And what do fingers have to do with sequences of one stressed syllable and two unstressed syllables? In metrical notation, stressed syllables are often written as a dash, and unstressed syllables as shorter, bent lines. Represented this way, apparently a dactyl reminded someone of a finger: The dash for the stressed syllable is the first, longer knuckle, and the two shorter knuckles are the bent lines for the unstressed syllables. 

double dactyl syllables

What Are the Double Dactyl Poetry Rules?

The form of poem called the double dactyl has two stanzas of four lines each, in which the first three lines each are made up of just two dactyls, and the fourth line has a single dactyl followed by one more stressed syllable. For example, some acceptable fourth lines could be Hullabaloo, or Give me a break!

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