Consider this humble submittal
Which poses a cumbersome riddle:
What’s rarely discreet
And has thirteen feet
With two shorter legs in the middle?
The limerick is usually derided as a bit of lowbrow, immature fluff. But penning a truly good limerick is actually quite difficult. It must effectively tell a compelling story, preferably one with multiple shades of meaning, within a framework that is so ruthlessly efficient and so structurally demanding that a haiku is a comparative free-for-all.
We don’t normally think of something as basic and non-scientific as a witty turn of verse as “technology.” But in the case of the limerick, it certainly fits the definition: accomplishing a practical task through the deliberate implementation of specific, repeatable techniques or methods. This deceptively simple form of poetry must adhere to a canon of rules that is at once rigid, sophisticated, and remarkably nuanced.
An in-depth look at what a limerick is, where it came from, how identify (and write) a good one follows after the jump.
A HUMBLE HISTORY
The limerick’s roots go back nearly three centuries in English-language culture. Its most likely genesis was in lyrics to a ribald Irish drinking song, “Come Up To Limerick,” a tune that has been lost to history. The traditional (perhaps apocryphal) story is that the whole crowd of pub-goers would sing the refrain of “Won’t you come up / Won’t you come up / Won’t you come up to Limerick town”, after which each reveler present was expected to stand in turn and sing a verse of their own creation. The wittiest (and most risqué) were rewarded with cheers and free ale, while those who offered poor, dull or unoriginal balladry were roundly boo’d and perhaps even evicted from the pub.
In its original form, the limerick most likely used an anapestic foot exclusively: that is, a series of two short (unstressed) syllables followed by a third long (accented) syllable. Three of the lines were made up of three feet (bup-a-DOW, bup-a-DOW, bup-a-DOW); but the third and fourth lines had only two feet. The rhyming structure was A-A-B-B-A, meaning the longer lines ended in words that all rhymed, and the two short lines shared a different rhyme. While the basic five-line/thirteen-foot structure and rhyme scheme have endured, the meter evolved once the Limerick became a standalone poem that was no longer tied to the original tune’s beat. Since the anapest does not easily accommodate the normal accent of most spoken phrases, more and more limericks adopted the amphibrach foot, in which the middle syllable is stressed (ba-DOW-dum). Unfortunately, when reading limericks from the printed page rather than reciting them orally, the proliferation of two different meters often made it difficult to determine which syllable the author expected to be stressed. As a result, the majority of more recent limericks utilize a hybrid structure that utilizes both amphibrach and anapestic elements, but adheres strictly to neither.
ENTER KING LEAR
The amphibrachic limerick was firmly established by 1845, when Edward Lear published A Book of Nonsense, his famous collection of “nonsense-verse” (the term limerick would not be applied to Lear’s writing until a much later date). The form clearly predates Lear, but he is almost single-handedly responsible for popularizing what we now refer to as the limerick among the general public. Despite this notoriety, much of Lear’s work appears sloppy and poorly rhymed to modern readers. Lear would somewhat lazily use the same word for the first and fifth rhyme. Many verses cannot be easily read aloud “cold,” and must be studied for a bit before the proper meter can be determined. Some remain inherently awkward by any reading and just don’t work very well.
Lear, however, did establish several characteristics that remain traditional elements of the form today. Since rhymes typically fall on an accented syllable, the amphibrach naturally lent itself to rhyming both of the last two syllables. Lear effectively rhymed such two-syllable pairs as Norway and doorway, and even words with phrases, as with Smyrna and burn her (non-rhotic pronunciation, as ‘bahn hah,’ ). Lear also began many of his verses by describing a person and their place of residence (or origin) in the first line. “There once was a [person] from [place name]” has since become as traditionally familiar as the nursery rhyme’s “Once upon a a time…” and the Internet meme’s “Yo, Dawg, we heard you liked…”
A QUESTION OF CONTENT
“A Man from Nantucket,” diagramed in the lead graphic, is perhaps the world’s best-known limerick. One reason why is that it conveniently lends itself to any number of infamously obscene alternatives. There’s no question that vulgar, rude and sexually suggestive content has always been a part of the limerick tradition, going all the way back to those 18th-century Irish pubs. But determining how intrinsic off-color content is to that tradition depends on who you listen to. Noted folklorist Gershon Legman was adamant that a clean limerick was an affront to the form, watering down what should be a framework for group interaction that transcends societal boundaries. Irish author and literary critic C L. Graves clearly thought otherwise: “…though a great many ‘Limericks’ are unseemly or unfit for publication, a great many blameless ones are to be found outside the pages of Lear” (Cornhill Magazine, February 1918). One thing’s for sure: the objective of the limerick should be cleverness and wit, not simple titillation or raw shock. It’s not enough for a limerick to have taboo content to succeed. On the contrary! Explicitness tends toward the obvious and obtuse, whereas a bit of sly innuendo or double entendre can simultaneously be more tactful and more intellectually provocative.
THE CANONICAL MODERN LIMERICK
The limerick has evolved into a carefully nuanced hybrid form. For an illustration of this hybrid form, refer to the lead graphic. You’ll see that lines 1, 2, and 5 are basically amphibrachic, but with a couple of peculiarities. First of all, the final syllable is now optional; as long as you’re consistent, the lines can end on the third foot’s accented second syllable (i.e., There ONCE was an OLD man from TRENT). If the last short syllable is kept, the accented and trailing syllables must both rhyme with their corollaries in the other two lines. Moving to the other extreme, the use of even longer three- and four-syllable words (especially rhyming them with an improbable phrase at the close) is now seen as one hallmark of an exceptional limerick; it is now proper to extend these three lines to accommodate one or more short, extra beats:
A female gym coach from Connecticut
Routinely shuns proper gym etiquette
For she will discard
Her gym leotard
The moment she first starts to sweat a bit
While there is theoretically no limit to how many extra syllables could be inserted this way, I’ve yet to see a successful limerick with more than a triple-syllable rhyme. Firstly, any extra beats must be part of a single multisyllabic term in the first line. Secondly, the difficulty in successfully crafting a rhyme goes up exponentially with each added syllable. (Big bonus points to whoever can finish “There once was an old man from Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe“). Turning our attention to lines 3 and 4, you can see that they are basically anapestic, but the first syllable has been dropped so that it becomes a two-syllable iamb + anapest.
As noted earlier, Lear typically repeated the last word of the first line in the last line, and often recycled most of the first line verbatim. Nowadays, three distinct rhyming words are expected. From a reader’s point of view, it makes for a more interesting read. In fact, an unexpected fifth-line rhyme is often seen as the “pay-off’ when reading a limerick. For the author, the limerick is already savagely brief; a unique third line provides additional elbow room for sewing together his narrative. Graves stated it thus: “In the matter of the last word, [Lear] never varied. Here, the modern form is a distinct improvement, introducing not only the surprise of a fresh rhyme but also fresh matter.”
We typically don’t speak as precisely in casual conversation as we write. Phonetic wordplay based on colloquial speech and dialects is encouraged, even to the point of punny. But this is not the same thing as lazy or imperfect rhymes. Rhyming a d with a t or a singular form with a plural is probably as far as one should stray from a perfect rhyme, unless a rhyme is being deliberately tortured for humorous effect.
No canon is absolute, and non-canonical works are not necessarily inferior (I’m totally down with Star Trek TAS). There are many successful limericks that don’t strictly follow the established meter scheme:
Oxen are doltish, yet more
Soldiers are, marching to war
Oxen, though dumb
Let no corporal’s drum
Goad them to charge to the fore
In this case, the words oxen and soldiers have an obvious accent on the first syllable, which aid the reader’s intuition. In other instances where no short syllable (or two of them) are present, the phrasing of the line is clear based on minor words such as in, and or a, as well as short suffixes -ly and -en, which are instinctively not emphasized. On the fourth and fifth lines of our example, however, the meter is less obvious and it is easy to get them wrong the first time. There’s nothing worse than getting halfway through a limerick and getting lost. While many nonstandard verses can roll off the tongue deftly when someone familiar with them recites them, to be truly effective a limerick should pop off the written page perfectly for the reader the first time through, and the canonical form ensures this. It is wiser for the author to simply rephrase the line to match canon, with exactly only one unstressed syllable at the beginning of a line, because that’s how most readers expect to read it. Few laymen understand the complexities and intricacies of the modern limerick form, and even fewer undertake it as an objective field of study. But if the canon is followed, nearly any reader will properly and confidently read your verse at first blush, and feel rewarded for doing so.
A limerick can be satyrical, risqué, humorous, wry, poignant, or all of the above. But to work, it must entertain on some special level. It must be memorable. In 1979, while my flight instructor was teaching me the effects of weight distribution and CG on flight attitude, he recited a limerick that was somewhat racy for 16-year old ears. I remember that it made me feel adult, included, and befriended—like I was part of the club. That’s what a good limerick should do. And even though he only said it once, I can still recall it perfectly all these years later:
A stewardess who once was a prude
Now takes to the skies nearly nude
She lost a few pounds
And suddenly found
It altered her flight attitude.
[To elucidate the above reference for our less senior readers, flight attendants were once called "stewardesses," were considered sex symbols, and often had uniform options to choose from that ranged from full-coverage pantsuits to leggy miniskirts.]