Guest columnist: Anthony Ambrogio.
Instead of charming Marge Simon (also known as “rhymin’ Simon” to her cousin Paul), you’re stuck with me, the Grumpy Grammarian, for your “Blood and Spades” entry this month. (Blame Editor Ptacek.)
And, while Ms. Simon manages to showcase talented guest poets in her column, when they found out I was taking over her spot this month, everybody bowed out, and the only poet I could get to talk to me was Anonymous—and all he wanted to talk about were limericks.
All the Best Stuff Comes from Everyman (and Everywoman): Anonymous
Anonymous in his own words:
In my long and varied career, I have created many immortal lines, from “Westron wind, when wilt thou blow” to “Kilroy was here.” But some of my greatest achievements come in the form of limericks.
The five-line limerick with its distinctive AABBA rhyme scheme and more-or-less anapestic trimeter-trimeter-dimeter-dimeter-trimeter (doesn’t it excite you when I talk poetic like that to you?) is one of my most enduring and endearing creations. (I say “more-or-less anapestic” because limericks sometimes start off with a short, iambic foot—soft-hard instead of soft-soft-hard—and sometimes have those short feet at the beginning of the other four lines, too.)
When they’re done right, limericks are beautiful things to behold—and behear. Too often, however, people who think they can write a limerick crank out some godawful unmetered mess that gives the limerick a bad name.
Which is too bad. For limericks can be so instructive. I have used them after I’ve learned a new word or the meaning of an old phrase in order to create a kind of mnemonic to cement the definition in my brain.
A shepherdess moaned by a brook,
“I’ve an itch in my secretest nook.
The guys who have breached it
Just never have reached it—
So I will, by hook or by crook!”
Not an explanation of the g-spot (though there’s that) but an explanation of “by hook or by crook,” a saying that I had known forever and understood correctly (“by any means necessary”) but never knew the origin of (my association with “crook” being the bad guy in a western movie). When I finally had my epiphany and realized that “by hook or by crook” had to do with the staff people used when tending sheep, I created this limerick in order to enshrine the meaning once and for all.
Here’s another—a little crude, but I’m not quite finished with it yet:
When the Earth moves, the fact is well known
That the crusts pushing up ’gainst their own
Are expressing their passion
(Well, after their fashion)
Creating orogenous zones.
Orogeny, according to the dictionary, “is the primary mechanism by which mountains are built on continents”: “a process in which a section of the Earth’s crust is folded and deformed by lateral compression to form a mountain range.” What better way to explain such an action than by assuming it’s the land’s own form of procreation via sexual recreation? (I bet you won’t forget the meaning of orogeny now, will you?)
Some people trace the limerick, or at least its popularization to Edward Lear (1812-1888). The following is a typical Lear contribution to the genre (one of more than 200 he wrote in his lifetime):
There was a Young Person of Smyrna
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her.
But she seized on the cat,
and said “Granny, burn that!
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!”
A real knee-slapper, huh?
Wikipedia quotes William Tigges (from “The Limerick: The Sonnet of Nonsense?” 1987) about Lear’s limericks: “The humour is not in the ‘punch-line’ ending but rather in the tension between meaning and its lack.”
Others took the form and ran with it, adding that necessary punch-line ending and supplying the meaning Lear was lacking—without which a limerick is just nonsense. So I suggest you stick with me, kid, and avoid/ignore Lear.
For, while Lear may have popularized the limerick form, the limerick has a long and storied history. It was alive and well in Shakespeare’s time. The Bard features a limerick in Othello, when the evil Iago goads Othello’s lieutenant, Cassio, into getting drunk:
And let me the cannikin clink, clink;
And let me the cannikin clink.
A soldier’s a man,
A life’s but a span—
Why, then, let a soldier drink! (Othello, II.iii.64-68)
While they’re not the only ones to do so, publisher/humorist Bennett Cerf and folklorist/psychologist Gershon Legman have both put out collections of limericks. Cerf’s are mostly clean; Legman’s are not.
Which leads us to this limerick that addresses the issue of subject matter in limericks:
The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical
In addition to needing dirt, Legman argues that, because the limerick form is so economical, one shouldn’t waste the first line (as people often do) with a passive construction like “There once was” (as in “There once was a man from Nantucket”). Rather they should get right to the action. However, to be fair to the limerick writers who do commence with the tried-and-true passive-construction beginning (perhaps feeling it’s as traditional as “once upon a time” for a fairy tale), it’s often to put a proper name at the end of the line that they then will cleverly rhyme, for the essence of limericks is wit, both in what is said and how it’s said.
An orchestra groupie named Grace
Hoped to have every guy in the place.
And she did proposition
Each concert musician
But never could get to first bass.
(It goes without saying that this limerick was obviously composed at a time when there were few, if any, female musicians in symphony orchestras.)
Often, limericks are also famous for their orthography, wherein the final words of lines two and five are spelled the same as the first line’s last word—to wit:
A sleeper from the Amazon
Put nighties of his gramazon.
The reason? That
He was too fat
To get his own pajamazon.
I’m particularly proud of that one.
You’ll notice another thing about many limericks: they feature folks from all over the world, as in this example from William Cosmo Monkhouse:
There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.
Sometimes the special orthography at the end of a line stumped me when I was a kid—until I (belatedly) got the hang of it.
Consider this specimen (featured in Cerf’s Out on a Limerick), contributed by none other than Mark Twain:
A man hired by John Smith and Co.
Loudly declared that he’d tho.
Men that he saw
Dumping dirt near his door
The drivers, therefore, didn’t do.
(When I see “John Smith and Co.,” my inclination is to read it as “John Smith and koh,” even though I know that “Co.” is an abbreviation for “company.” When I finally caught on to the fact that “Co.” should be read as “Company,” “tho.” and “do.” made perfect sense, and the poem was very funny—and clever, as befits Mark Twain.)
Finally—and this is a challenge that the talented members of the HWA should take up—limericks can be used to create capsule synopses of plays, books, movies, as these examples from classic horror films illustrate:
Needing new blood, old Count Dracula
Traveled to England to snacula
On Lucy and Mina.
He gorged; they grew leana—
His ending was bloody spectacula.
THE MUMMY (1933)
Im-Ho-Tep loved Anck-es-en-Amon
With a love that was, let’s say, “uncommon.”
Three thousand years later,
To reincarnate her,
He tried, but he wasn’t no Brahman.
THE WOLFMAN (1941)
Larry Talbot, an unlucky fella,
Was bit by a werewolf named Bela,
Which caused him to change,
Grow furry with mange
And do things upon which I won’t dwell—un-
Til he chased Gwen down the lane,
And his dad, with a silver-tipped cane,
Smashed and bashed in his head
’Til this werewolf was dead
And Larry was freed from his pain.
See? Give it a try. Can you encapsulate your novel in a limerick?
Thank you, and good day.
Anthony Ambrogio, firstname.lastname@example.org