• What is a Limerick?

  • Poetic Form

  • For Example
  • Limericks

    I never considered myself to be much of a fan of the limerick poetic form. Most limericks I had read were nonsensical at best, contrived at worst, and filled with references to people from Nantucket.

    Paul Henry, in his paper, A Call For The Complete Elimination Of Joke Haiku Production On The Internet recommends using limerick poetry for internet jokes (instead of bad senryu) for the following reasons

    • limericks are inherently goofy.
    • limericks provide a frisson of naughtiness that is ideally suited to jokery.
    • limericks have no proud tradition to debase.
    • limericks take some thought to write.
    • a limerick provides the writer with more structural freedom with which to convey a point.

    Although these are valid points, the first two underscore the primary reasons I'm not over-fond of limericks. I think they tend to be overly silly (and the writers of limericks tend to let the form degenerate). After a while, I've found that most limericks begin to sound the same.

    What is a Limerick?

    A limerick is a short, often humorous and ribald poem developed to a very specific structure.

    The first line often ends with a person's name or a location (geographical limericks), and rhymes are often intentionally tortured.

    [ cf Wikipedia entry on limericks ]

    Edward Lear popularized this form in his nonsense verse. Unfortunately, Lear's limericks really do begin to sound the same after a while. In addition, while he popularized the form, he popularized a degenerative form. Lear's more than 200 limericks were "aimed more at nonsense than toward a punch line or twist in the final line". Many are also not "true" limericks, as the last line is, often, simply a variant on the first.

    There was an Old Man with a beard,
    Who said, "It is just as I feared!
    Two Owls and a Hen,
    Four Larks and a Wren,
    Have all built their nests in my beard!'
    This has led some people to retroactively rename Lear's work as Learics. It has also lead at least one wit to compose a parody
    There was an old man with a beard
    A funny old man with a beard
    He had a big beard
    A great big old beard
    That amusing old man with a beard

    -- John Clarke

    Fortunately, limericks do not have to be silly, nonsensical, or repetitive.

    I favor the limerick form,
    For serious work not the norm;
    A new way to capture,
    A feeling of rapture,
    Or visions of wild thunderstorm.

    [ Excerpt from Poetry of the Heart by Joel D. Ash ]

    Poetic Form

    The limerick is ... constructed of five lines with an anapestic beat (see below) and an AABBA rhyme scheme.

    The anapest contains three syllables, the first two of which are unaccented and the last of which is accented (examples: comprehend or intervene.

    Limerick Pattern

    --/ --/ --/     A       (da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM)
    --/ --/ --/     A       (da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM)
    --/ --/         B       (da da DUM da da DUM)
    --/ --/         B       (da da DUM da da DUM)
    --/ --/ --/     A       (da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM)
    [ cf ]

    For Example

    I am quite entranced by this example, from Tom o'Bedlam (c. 1600), a multi-stanza poem considered to be the first "deliberate creation to match limerick form". Apparently the AABBA rhyme scheme is less "important" than the beat. In Tom o'Bedlam, at least, the rhyme scheme is ABCCB (the first line has no rhyming partner). I find that I prefer the way this pattern sounds to the more "usual" limerick rhyming scheme.
    From the hag and hungry goblin
    That into rags would rend thee
    And the spirit that stands
    by the naked man,
    In the book of the moons defend yee.

    Most people will recognize this one, originally from 1744!

    Hickory, Dickory Dock,
    A Mouse ran up the Clock,
    The Clock Struck One,
    The Mouse fell down,
    And Hickory Dickory Dock.

    This one is from Gilbert and Sullivan (1877)

    My name is John Wellington Wells.
    I'm a dealer in magic and spells.
    In blessings and curses
    And ever-filled purses
    In prophecies, witches and knells.
    The following is a "typical" modern limerick
    The limerick packs laughs anatomical
    Into space that is quite economical.
    But the good ones I've seen
    So seldom are clean
    And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

    Many writers delight in playing with the limerick form. For example, the end words are often chosen (or spelled) such that they make a visual rhyme as well as one of sound, (often the spelling or pronunciation of one or more words is bizarre). In the following, the reader needs to be aware that Salisbury is known to locals as Sarum, Hampshire as Hants, and so forth.

    There was a young curate of Salisbury
    Whose manners were Halisbury-Scalisbury
    He wandered round Hampshire
    Without any pampshire
    Till the Vicar compelled him to Warisbury

    There is a sub-genre, sometimes called anti-limericks, of poems that intentionally subvert the structure of the limerick form. This is my favorite:

    A decrepit old gas man named Peter,
    While hunting around for the meter,
    Touched a leak with his light.
    He arose out of sight,
    And, as anyone can see by reading this, he also destroyed the meter.

    Many writers also delight in writing "meta" limericks, that is, limericks about limericks!

    Well, it's partly the shape of the thing
    That gives the old limerick wing;
    These accordion pleats
    Full of airy conceits
    Take it up like a kite on a spring.

    Copyright 2004, Vicki Brown,