A limerick a week #31

It could be verse …

I’m never quite sure why the Japanese literary art of haiku is so revered.

I get that (traditionally) a haiku has a strict structure and comprises three lines with a sequence of five, seven and five moras. (Apparently moras are sound structures in Japanese that are similar to, but not the same as, syllables).

… I get that they mostly don’t rhyme.

… I get that they comprise two phrases placed together for contrast.

… I even get that at times (usually?) they seem to lack meaning.

What I don’t get (and this is what I really don’t get) is why they are held up as examples of high literary art when the humble limerick is looked down upon from those immersed in ‘high’ culture

After all limericks have a defined structure like haiku, in their case comprising five lines in which, strictly, the first, second and fifth should each have nine syllables and the rest only six. Admittedly they differ from haiku as the longer lines each rhyme as do the two shorter ones, but that just makes them harder to construct.

You can even get technical in their definition as they are quintains with a strict rhyme scheme and anapestic meter in which the first, second and third lines are triplets, comprising three anapests and the others are couplets with only two. As an anapest is a three-syllabic clause usually with emphasis on the third syllable, a limerick is phrased thus:

Tee tee tum, tee tee tum, tee tee tum
Tee tee tum, tee tee tum, tee tee tum
Tee tee tum, tee tee tum
Tee tee tum, tee tee tum
Tee tee tum, tee tee tum, tee tee tum.

Although that is strict definition of a limerick’s meter they don’t all follow such an exact scheme; however, modern conventions in haiku also break from strict tradition, so clearly both forms are flexible. (It’s rare that my limericks are precise enough in their meter to correspond to the strictest definition, but sometimes a chap has to compromise as you’ll see later).

The modern tradition of limerick writing almost compels them to incorporate clever word play and, if possible, subtle innuendo. If you can get meter, word play and innuendo matched, then you have the perfect limerick. I’m still striving for that. I struggle to achieve more than one out of the three in my efforts in A limerick a week, but it’s fun to try.

Last week’s offering was close to a strict anapestic meter, failing only due to a missing syllable in the last line. In fact, I had a version that did match correctly, but it didn’t read as well as the syllable-deprived version. The final version was:

When a Teutonic torso arose
I was tempted to yell: “Thar she blows!”
‘Cos the scene that I viewed
Was an adipose nude
Afloat in a supine repose.

The alternative, and anapestically correct version, had as its final line:

All afloat in a supine repose.

Try both endings and see which you prefer (hopefully you’ll agree with me that the sacrifice of a single syllable was worth it – either that or you’ll think I’m a complete pillock for letting such things bother me).

So, how did an interest in limericks arise? Surprisingly, not from an introduction to the work of Edward Lear (famous for popularising limericks in the 19th century, although his commonly ended the first and fifth lines with the same word in contrast to current practice).

No, the first that really grabbed attention in my early years was this one:

There was a young fellow called Clyde
Who fell in a cess pit and died.
He had a young brother
Who fell in another
And now they’re interred side by side!

It was the double meaning implied by interred that made it memorable. It is quite a well-known limerick, with lots of variants, but this is the version that I remember and it is still one of my favourites.

I first heard another favourite on a old vinyl record. As an undergraduate I’d won a couple of such LPs in a raffle. One featured a Scottish folk duo, the Corries, on a ‘live’ album that included one very short track, ‘Abigail’:

On the bosom of young Abigail
Was written the price of her tail
And upon her behind
For the use of the blind
Was the same information in braille!

Not very PC nowadays, but still, I think, very clever.

So, there we are. There are many bloggers and twitterers producing limericks today. Not all are clever and too many are crude rather than rude, but there are some really good ones out there and, for me, they hold their own against haiku.

Meantime, here is this week’s none-too-clever, but anapestically-correct limerick of the week:

A limerick’s a kind of a verse
Of the sort that I like to disburse,
But it seems that sometimes
I don’t quite get the rhymes
Or the metrical foot is perverse!

Postscript#1: I’ve only ever written one haiku. It was after a tedious work-related discussion on producing guidelines for almost anything and everything that we do.

Chris, a now-retired colleague, had expressed his frustration in the following way that also reflected our collective practice of resorting to limericks in our business planning:

Storms (in tea-cups).

To me, that sounded like it should be a haiku, but it wasn’t, so with a wee bit of thought it was turned into a wannabe Japanese aphorism in which the juxtaposition of contrasting phrases delivers a meaningless expression – except that in this case it is surprisingly meaningful (to me) in the work context outlined above:

Storms brew in tea-cups
As guidelines grow profusely
Into limericks.

Postscript#2: Limericks are generally thought to be named after the city or county of Limerick in Eire, possibly drawn from a version of nonsense verse popular in the area.

Postscript#3: The ex-Python, Michael Palin, has published two volumes of limericks. Some good, some not-so-good, but with the advantage of having an artist to illustrate them. That’s cheating!

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😎 Former scientist, now graduated to a life of leisure; Family man (which may surprise the family - it certainly surprises him); Likes cycling and old-fashioned B&W film photography; Dislikes greasy-pole-climbing 'yes men'; Thinks Afterlife (previously known as Thea Gilmore) should be much better known than she is; Values decency over achievement.

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