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This piece was originally posted in the March 2011 "issue" of Majestic
, Lit.org's monthly newsletter, as an installment in my ongoing column series What's So Funny?
Some of the other authors of recently-posted articles on standard poetic forms encouraged me to also post it here on the main site alongside their offerings. Pen, in particular, engaged in a particularly effective campaign of flattery and creative browbeating
to encourage me to do so. How could I refuse? Here 'tis.
I’ve noticed that over the past few weeks, some of Lit.Org’s most proficient poets have begun posting articles explaining the structure of a variety of standard poetic forms. So far (as of the drafting of this column), TheRedCockroach (the apparent ringleader of the group), Pen, and windchime have written about acrostics, tetractys, villanelles, sestinas, and cinquains, and TheRedCockroach has listed several other forms he says he intends to cover in future articles.
I see great value in presenting this information to Lit.Org’s readers and contributors, yet I would be remiss if I did not point out what, to me at least, seems a glaring omission. Perhaps it is not mentioned because it is assumed to be a form already familiar to the average reader (and, arguably, even to the below average reader). I speak of the limerick, of course – that redheaded stepchild (I claim dispensation to use the term, having been AND having had a red-headed stepchild myself!) of the poetry world.
Consider this, though: is any other poetic form more associated with humor than the limerick? As far as I know, no other defined poetic structure is automatically expected to be funny. The writer of the serious, heart-felt, introspective or (heaven forbid) angst-ridden limerick is in for a big surprise when the work is universally greeted by its audience with a collective “Huh???”
So as Lit.Org’s self-appointed commentator on humor in general, I’ll take it upon myself to both extol the virtues (and, when called for, acknowledge the shortcomings) of the limerick. Besides, the limerick is named after a county in Ireland, and March is when Irish Wannabes all over the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (providing gainful employment to Celtic bands everywhere, at least in the English- and Irish-speaking world.) We here at What’s So Funny? are nothing if not timely AND not above making strained connections to justify our chosen topic of the month.
You probably consider yourself familiar with the standard structure of the limerick, though you may never have consciously sought to express it using the “technical” terminology associated with poetry. (Like pornography, you just know it when you see it.) The limerick has five lines per stanza (and, more often than not, just one stanza, though a multi-stanza epic limerick is not out of the realm of possibility), with an AABBA rhyme scheme. That means that the first, second, and fifth line all rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other, but usually NOT with the other three. In addition, the two sets of rhyming lines tend to have about the same number of syllables and to follow a standard rhythmic pattern of stresses.
Now we’re getting into Font of Useless Knowledge territory (one of my favorite places to be) where we got to talk about the obscure terms for various poetic “feet” (basic rhythmic units). As usual, the Lazy Researcher (yours truly) falls back on her current BFF, Google (and again tries to remember how she ever got through college without Google, the Internet, her own PC, or even her own typewriter. It’s nothing short of a miracle, and I doubt if I could do it now.)
Most of the following factual information I gleaned from Google, but you will probably recognize as my own the running commentary and frequent asides I’m wont to throw in. According to Google’s entry on the limerick, its basic building blocks are the amphibrach and/or the anapaest. That entry, of course, links to other entries that diagram the rhythmic and stress structures of these units using fancy-schmancy characters I can’t find on my laptop’s keyboard, so I’ll fall back on their alternate method of using ta for unstressed syllables and TUM for stressed syllables. (I seem to be falling back rather a lot. Let’s just say I’m getting in practice for St. Patrick’s Day.) Thus, the amphibrach sounds like ta-TUM-ta, and the anapaest sounds like ta-ta-TUM.
The first, second, and fifth lines of a limerick would thus usually have either three amphibrachs (ta-TUM-ta, ta-TUM-ta, ta-TUM-ta) or three anapaests (ta-ta-TUM, ta-ta-TUM, ta-ta-TUM.) You might also see these lines either start or end with an iamb (ta-TUM.) Lines three and four are shorter, with only two of whichever “feet” the writer may choose, one of which may be an iamb, but not both.
Besides the rhythmic and rhyme structures, other conventions have evolved in limericks over the years. Most commonly, a limerick tells a story in the third person, starting off with “There once was…” (the limerick’s version of “Once upon a time…”) and usually introduces the protagonist either by name or by place of origin. In fact, I marvel at the fact that the form didn’t come to be called a “nantucket” instead of a limerick, given the popularity of so many limericks featuring characters from that New England island.
Now I shall weigh in with my own personal opinion on the most controversial aspect of the limerick. Apparently (and, again, according to Google) there are those who insist that a true limerick is necessarily obscene. While I have certainly heard my share of dirty limericks, which I shall refrain from repeating here, (suffice it to say that there’s probably a reason Nantucket is such a popular theme, given the rhymes it can inspire,) I say that while its form is most conducive to light verse, there is no reason that poetry following this structure must necessarily be in poor taste.
On this matter, I’m reminded of a similar ongoing debate among poets as to whether a true haiku must necessarily adhere to a specific thematic, rather than simply syllabic, structure. Certainly poetic purists are entitled to their opinions, and may have valid arguments for their positions, but I tend to lean toward the side of allowing the poetic framework to accommodate whatever theme the writer can effectively convey within that defined format. (At least now I’m leaning instead of falling. I consider this progress.)
I’m certainly not averse to enjoying a limerick that could be considered risqué. In fact, since I haven’t given any examples yet, I’ll take this opportunity to share one of my favorites. (Alas, as with so many of this genre, this limerick’s true origin is unknown to me. Anyone care to claim it?)
A gay man who lived in Khartoum
Took a Lesbian up to his room.
They argued all night
Over who had the right
To do what and with which and to whom.
Bawdy? Without question. Obscene? I say not. It leaves just enough to the imagination to titillate without getting downright dirty. Politically incorrect? Possibly – but I challenge you to point out to me exactly where it says anything offensive or derogatory about anyone.
This past week I also happened to come across a comment thread within Lit.Org that addressed this very “The Limerick: Dirty or Not Dirty?” debate. The primary discussion had taken place a couple of months back, but it came to my attention thanks to a recent comment/contribution from the aforementioned Pen. She offered up an example about cats from Kilkenny – an appropriately Irish reference – that proved that an effective limerick need not be of a sexual nature at all.
Even so, I will admit that the limerick will probably never be considered a “highbrow” form of literature. Given its “poetry for the common man” reputation, a limerick can get away with, shall we say, colloquial pronunciations. The following is a limerick I heard from my grandfather when I was a child:
There once was a gal from Decatur
Who went to sing at the thee-ay-ter,
But the poor little thing,
When she got up to sing,
She got hit by a rotten tomater.
For no really good reason, this reminds me of an analogy that has come to my mind while considering the “social standing” of the limerick. This particular analogy can probably be blamed on the fact that the American stock car racing season has just begun, and I’m an unabashed fan. (Woo hoo! How ‘bout that Daytona 500?)
Think of the limerick as the NASCAR of the literary world.
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing makes no bones – and, in fact, now downright embraces – its origins in American Appalachian moonshining and the men who tweaked the cars in which they transported their illegal liquor so that they could outrun the “revenuers.” (The government agents charged with cracking down on illegal distilleries worked for America’s beloved – ahem – Internal Revenue Service.)
Thus, NASCAR’s historic roots are associated with “socially unacceptable” behavior, just as the roots of the limerick are associated with topics not considered “family friendly”. However, there is nothing inherently objectionable about the basic form. (In the case of NASCAR, this is commonly summarized as “go fast, turn left.”) A limerick, as long as it adheres reasonably closely to the rhythmic and rhyming structure we’ve come to expect, can transcend it’s “low-brow” origins and provide inoffensive entertainment to people of all ages and social classes.
Now, a limerick will probably never achieve the same literary standing as a sonnet, just as NASCAR will probably never achieve the same elevated social status as, say, polo. Even so, if your poetic muse moves you to express yourself in the form of a limerick, you need not feel compelled to relinquish whatever literary credentials you may have. Allow yourself to have some fun, for however else the limerick may evolve, I believe it’s a long way from leaving behind its inherent lighthearted nature.
At this point, I will take a page from the book of my esteemed colleague at Majestic, jonpenny (Ken Lehnig, recently overheard exclaiming, "Hey! Who took a page from my book??") who, as a part of his regular Ramblings of a Vagabond Poet column, issues to his readers a monthly Song Challenge. I now issue a sort of poetic challenge of my own. To close this tribute to the limerick, I’d wanted to write a terribly clever and original limerick. I am, however, stymied in my efforts by the sad fact that I’ve never been much of a poet. This is evident in the fact that I consider my proudest poetic achievement to have been contributing to a song parody about the sexually-transmitted disease chlamydia, sung to the tune of Lydia the Tattooed Lady. (I’ll spare you the gory details, but it did have its moments, if I do say so myself.)
So here’s my challenge to you. You only have to write one line – how hard can that be? Pretty darn hard, as I discovered to my chagrin. If you can, please help me write the closing line to the following:
There once was a gal from Ohio
Who attempted to write her own bio
In limerick form,
Which wasn’t the norm…
And that’s where I get stuck.
Now I wish I were from Nantucket.
Numerous hyperlinks included in the original Majestic
posting have not been included here, mainly because on my first attempt to plug all of them in here, I accidentally navigated away from the posting page and lost everything I'd done! Profanity ensued. If you wish to see the original posting complete with a plethora of hyperlinks AND delightful reader comments, please view it here
Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana. - Groucho Marx