last Monday saw the passing of John Hollander, a right old expert in verse forms in English, also an expert translator and theorist of translating. Sterling Professor of English at Yale, dude was a walking dictionary of literary terms, and particularly learned on rhymed and measured verse in English. His “Rhyme’s Reason” (1981) is a master course in how to scan a poem and why it matters.
Not surprisingly, his own creative career reflects these interests. He started publishing in the 1950s, with work that showcased formal rigor. He grew into the free verse of the age, although not the confessional tendencies of 1960s and post-1960s American poetry. Rather, he grew more mythical and grand, his poems taking on sweeping vision and big American themes. Given the sweep and time frame of his work, maybe comparison to American jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal is warranted.
As we all know, the dactyl is the poetic foot that combines one long and two short syllables (often described as one accented and two unaccented syllables). The dactyl is named for the Greek word for finger, since the finger has one long and two short bones. You think it’s funny that a foot is named after a finger? So do I. Anyway, in 1966 Hollander and Anthony Hecht “invented” the double dactyl, and a fun little verse form that would work with it. Each 2-stanza poem usually features, in line 6, a single word that is a double dactyl. The last line of each poem is a choriamb (a dactyl with an extra accented syllable at the end). Below are two clever examples, mini-biographies. Unlike some poetry we read, I think it’s fair to say we’d be hard pressed to take a look at these and say, “Aw, I could do that…” Have a good week, -ed.
Benjamin Harrison Higgledy-piggledy, Benjamin Harrison, twenty-third President, was, and, as such, Served between Clevelands, and save for this trivial idiosyncrasy, didn't do much.
John Hollander Higgeldy-piggeldy schoolteacher Hollanders mutter and grumble and cavil and curse searching for words for the antepenultimate line of this light-weight but intricate verse.