Here’s what the Limerick poetry form is:
A limerick is a humorous (and often rather irreverent) short five-line poem that utilizes a simple rhyme scheme to punctuate the comedic nature of the poem.
They were popularized by Edward Lear, though he did not specifically call his poems limericks.
So if you want to learn all about the Limerick poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.
Forms of Poetry: The Limerick
Limericks are a favorite of children since they typically pack the punch expected from a one-liner.
They are usually presented with an appealing little bit of rhyme.
Despite their lighthearted nature, limericks actually represent an interesting challenge since the poet needs to fit a snippet of narrative and a dash of comedy into just five lines, often while respecting meter.
Basic Properties of a Limerick
|18th century England
|Scattered popularity over the last few centuries
|Almost always comedic, strictly meant for entertainment
How Are Limericks Structured?
Limericks have a fairly strict rhyme scheme (AABBA) in which the first, second, and fifth lines rhyme with each other.
The third and fourth lines feature the second rhyme sound and are typically shorter than the rest of the poem.
The longer lines are typically written in anapestic trimeter while the third and fourth lines only feature two feet instead. While the meter in the shorter lines can vary, it typically sticks to anapests.
An anapest consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, ensuring that the poem will be punctuated by punchy and mildly jarring variations in sound.
Modern limericks do not always stick to the prescribed meters, but the rhyme scheme has persisted to this day as the defining feature of the poem, structurally.
Limericks nearly always convey a comedic little narrative.
It has been argued that true limericks, as a folk form, must be obscene by their very nature and that their willingness to tread on taboo topics is critical to the form.
The first line commonly establishes a person and a place.
In the earliest limericks, this line would essentially be reused as the end line, but this practice has since fallen out of favor.
The comedy of a limerick is usually tied to a twist in the poem’s narrative.
Example of a Limerick
There Once Was a Man From Nantucket by Prof. Dayton Voorhees
There once was a man from Nantucket,
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man,
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.
As with most limericks, the poem begins with the setting and character.
In this case, the character is an unnamed man and the location is Nantucket.
This, of course, establishes that the second line will need to end with Nantucket and, as the limerick was written back when the last line and first line of limericks tended to mirror each other, actually sets up more than half of the poem by itself.
The remaining third and fourth lines are used specifically to start the twist, which is still a fairly typical way of doing things even now.
The most creative aspect of this poem is in the use of the word “Nantucket.”
In the first line, it explicitly refers to the place, as expected.
The last line, however, reuses the same word after introducing a character called “Nan” to share the concluding moment of the plot in an amusingly circular way.
As would be expected of a limerick, there’s not much to take away from the poem.
Limericks hold a unique place in literature as they exist almost exclusively for entertainment.
Their very presence as a literary form is a bold middle finger in the middle of an ocean of genres and forms that are all trying desperately to be relevant.
The limerick, paradoxically, has no such intentions.
A limerick does not struggle to be relevant any more than a fish struggles to walk.
The form knows what it is and revels in its absurdity.
This tension between what literature is expected to be and what a limerick actually is might be the only accomplishment that the form actually has to offer, but it certainly is a unique one.
History of Limericks
Limericks were popularized by Edward Lear in the 19th century, who wrote a whopping 212 limericks across multiple publications.
This historical figure is to limericks what William Shakespeare was to the sonnet and is credited with the spread of the limerick through literary culture.
Lear’s limericks were written at a time when illustrations and repeated lines were customary and are much more nonsensical than most modern limericks.
While they still come off as humorous, the humor predominantly came from a sense of randomness in the narrative.
Limericks remained predominantly a form popular with educated males for quite some time.
And as such a large number of limericks from historical texts display rampant sexism, casting women in negative or secondary roles.
The form has since shifted in demographic and is now more likely to be shared on playgrounds than among scholars, but it does maintain a loyal following among poetry lovers for its unique brand of humor.
Tips for Writing a Limerick
The first decision to be made is whether or not you will be fastening yourself to the anapestic meter.
While anapest is the traditional mode of limericks, it’s certainly not unheard of to write iambic or even unmetered limericks.
As with any form that’s been around for centuries, some experimentation is perfectly acceptable.
Either way, you’ll need to start strong.
A typical limerick begins by declaring a character and a location.
While it’s a little cliché, the classic “there once was a ___ from ___” template does work for establishing your protagonist and setting.
Make sure the location ends with a workable end sound since it will establish the rhyme for three of your five lines.
It’s a good idea to start thinking about the event in the poem and the twist of the poem before even writing out the limerick itself.
Think as if you’re writing a scene in a cartoon.
Perhaps the speaker is trying to put out a fire and accidentally grabs a bucket of oil instead of water.
Slapstick comedy may be lowbrow, but that’s actually perfect for the limerick’s legacy so it’s perfectly fine.
If you’re going for the most traditional variant of the limerick, then you’ll need to have an in-depth understanding of how rhyme and meter work in order to accommodate anapestic meter properly in your poem.
A certain level of crudeness is also expected, but it’s up to the poet to choose what they’re most comfortable with.
Writing a limerick is often a bit like sculpting.
You’ll likely start with more material than you need, then chisel away at it until you start to see your limerick taking form.
Finding a process that works for you will take some trial and error.
The good news is that if you’ve written one limerick, you can easily write a couple hundred more.
Something about limericks makes them transition from funny to exhausting after you’ve heard a few in a row.
You could say it’s similar to the pun effect.
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