The limerick is named after a city and county in Ireland. The form was not invented there, but a common tavern game over a century ago was to take turns sharing raunchy verses followed by the phrase: “Won’t you come up to Limerick?" Edward Lear published 212 limericks in two books of “nonsense verse" (1845 and 1872) but did not use the title. The term was placed in English dictionaries around 1900, but the form was common everywhere from nurseries to bars as early as 14th century England.
We all are familiar with the rollicking rhythm of the limerick. I’m sure you have a few stuck in your head, but let’s be poetry dorks for a minute and define the form:
A limerick is a five line poem with an AABBA rhyme scheme. Lines one, two and five contain three feet, typically amphibrachs, while lines three and four have two, usually an anapest and an iamb.
Perhaps it’s easier to describe a limerick with a limerick:
The limerick packs laughs anatomical
In space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.
Limericks are commonly dirty and funny. Certainly you could write one about any topic, but the bouncing rhythm and rhyme scheme coupled with the limerick’s bawdy history make seriousness nearly impossible. To write a stern limerick about death or politics would be like writing sad lyrics for a kazoo band.
In choosing a topic, you may want to start with a favorite joke or a funny story. Fill up a page simply free-writing. Expand the details. Select the most important parts. You only have five lines, so you need all meat and no fat. Decide how you want to end the poem. Like any great joke, the punchline is the key. Shock your audience. Get them leaning the wrong way and catch them off guard.
The first line sets the stage. Often it describes the origin or occupation of the character in the poem. There was an old lady from Hyde
The second line is action. What does the character do? What are the character’s habits? Who ate rotten apples and died.
The third and fourth lines are the twist. They could suggest that the action is moving contrary to expectations. They could explain the problem presented in the first two lines. The apples fermented / Inside the lamented
The fifth line is the conclusion that should bring a surprise and laughter. And made cider inside her inside.
(The preceding limerick is from an anonymous author.)
Before you start building, you need to select your first rhyme. Ordinarily I advise against forcing rhyme, but in this case, get it all out. Complex place names, Nantucket for instance, are common rhymes. Ending the first line with something tricky makes the readers wonder if you can rhyme it twice, making your final word intensely anticipated. “How is he going to pull this off?" they may be asking.
Write the last line first. Be sure it finishes with the snap you desire, then write backwards. Be sure you have two good rhymes for your last word. I usually suggest choosing easily rhymed words to give you the maximum number of options, but with a limerick, struggling to make the rhymes fit can be a good thing.
Brain-storm a page of rhymes. Dust off your rhyming dictionary. Sometimes a wacky trio of rhymes with dictate where the poem will go. If you ever feel the itch to play with goofy words, this is the time and place to scratch.
More than any other form, puns and other plays on words are welcome in the limerick world. Using homophones and homonyms, you can make your reader think you are using a word one way and then surprise them by using it another. Do you mean “bear" like the animal or the verb? Did you say “hose" like the watering device or “hoes" like the garden tools?
A flea and a fly in a flue
Were trapped and knew not what to do.
Said the fly, ‘Let us flee.’
‘Let us fly,’ said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
Use all the alliteration you want. Use double entendre. The devices you choose may be the whole reason for writing the limerick. Normally I suggest that figures of speech subtly assist the greater meaning of your writing, but in this case wordplay itself may be your entire purpose.
With a form as prolific and goofy as the limerick, which seems to lampoon itself, parody is inevitable. You know what to expect from a limerick, so getting something else is a welcome surprise. You may vary the rhyme scheme, line length or rhythm to up-end your reader. Play off your audience’s anticipation to catch them cross-footed.
There once was a man from the sticks
Who liked to compose limericks.
But he failed at the sport
For he wrote ’em too short.
Stay Out of Trouble
Those seven dirty words you’re not supposed to say on TV or in school are so overused as to be meaningless. If you’re going to say something, use original words. Choose them exactly how you want them for your purpose. To lean on worn-out terms like @#$% and &*^! is just plain lazy and no longer shocking to anyone. The human imagination has tuned them out. Better to lead your readers toward the pig-sty and let them fall in themselves. They will. They can’t help it.
Good writing is about making the imagination go further than you do.
The writers who build them the best
Have control over what they suggest.
So when I say “ass"
I mean “mule who eats grass".
I can’t stop you from thinking the rest.
- Write your favorite joke in the form of a limerick.
- Write a limerick based completely on alliteration and puns.
- Choose an awkward word and write as many rhymes for it as you can.
- By playing with the rhyme scheme, rhythm, line length or another limerick quality, write an anti-limerick.
- Write a limerick on a dark and serious topic.
- Photo of woman laughing by Jimmy_Joe under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr
- Limericks – http://www.famousliteraryworks.com/limericks.htm
- Edward Lear Home Page – http://www.nonsenselit.org/Lear/
- The Limerick Special Interest Group – http://www.limericks.org/pentatette/reply.html
- Photo of gargoyle by lizzerW under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr