The Limerick

The Limerick

The Powers That Be in the world of poetry and literature have decreed that April shall be National Poetry Month. The general public is encouraged to read more poetry, recite poetry, and share poems with their friends and acquaintances.

But with all that, there’s still one form of poetry that does not get any respect.

The Limerick.

I’m not going to get into the history of the form (its Elizabethan antecedents, the Maigue Poets, Edward Lear, etc.); that may be for another post. Instead, I’ll take an analytic look at it.

Fundamentally, it’s five lines of anapestic (dih-dih-DAH) meter. The first, second, and fifth lines have three feet each; the third and fourth have two. The rhyme scheme is “AABBA”. One can muck about a bit with the meter, but the rhyme scheme is sacrosanct.

However, there’s a bit more to it than that. Each limerick tells a brief story. The first line – the Introduction – introduces the protagonist. The second line – Elaboration – adds something to the brief description of the first line. The third and fourth lines can be called “The Action”. They move quickly, with fewer ‘beats’ between the rhyme. The pace quickens, implying activity. The last line is The Resolution.

Let’s illustrate that with a two-centuries-old (at least) example:

There was a sick man of Tobago,

We are introduced to a man from the Caribbean island of Tobago, who is unwell.

Who dined long on rice gruel and sago.

Here’s the Elaboration. Our gentleman has evidently been ill for some time, and has been restricted to a very bland diet. One doesn’t need to know that ‘sago’ is a starchy food derived from tropical palms; one can guess that if his only other food is rice gruel, it’s going to be something dull.

And now, for the Action:

Then one day, to his bliss,
His doctor said this:

Has he recovered? Is he well now? Let’s find out! What does the Resolution line say?

“To a roast leg of mutton you may go!”

Hooray!!! Our protagonist has recovered from his illness!

One could also call the “Action / Resolution” pair the “Set up / Punch Line”, as most limericks are of a humorous nature.

That particular limerick also illustrates another characteristic of the form – the use of deliberately difficult rhymes, which often involve place names. Like this one:

There was a young lady from Wantage
Of whom the Town Clerk took advantage.
Said the County Surveyor,
“Of course you must pay her!
You’ve altered the line of her frontage!”

This one also illustrates one more characteristic of the form, which probably accounts for the lack of attention from the Poetry Authorities: the bawdiness. That’s unfair; more traditional poetic forms have their own naughtiness, too.

The Limerick packs laughs anatomical
In a verse form that’s quite economical
But the good ones I’ve seen,
So seldom are clean,
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

It’s a shame, too, especially for National Poetry Month. I’ll wager more people will be willing to enter a Limerick Writing Contest than a Sonnet Writing Contest. They are easier to memorize, short enough so you don’t tax your listener, and generally leave people with a smile on their face. And for “Poem in Your Pocket Day” (April 18), why not something where you can keep a whole stack in your pocket?

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