Poetry with a sense of humor

November 30, 1999|By LYDIA HADFIELD

Limericks are to poetry what slapstick is to theatre. They're completely irreverent, sometimes crude, and a lot of fun.

The origin of limericks is unknown. Some believe they were created in the 18th century by Irish soldiers returning to Limerick, Ireland, from France. Whatever its beginnings, the poetic form wasn't called a limerick until long after the verse had been in use.

Limericks were known as nonsense verse. Improvised by peasants and in pubs, nonsense verse developed a reputation for low-brow humor.

A limerick ain't like a sonnet,

No lace, no frills, no bonnet,

It can be absurd

And quite silly I've heard

But, hey, it's fun, dog-gone-it.

Nonsense verse became popular in 1861 when English poet and illustrator Edward Lear reprinted his whimsical limerick collection "A Book of Nonsense" under his own name. (In the first edition he used the pseudonym Derry Down Derry.)


The interest inspired a nonsense verse contest in the English humor magazine Punch that carried on for years. Readers were asked to submit nonsense verse about a specific location.

One story says the name "limerick" arose from the fact that no nonsense submissions could find a rhyme for the Irish town of that name. Another tale claims that the term was unrelated to the contest, and was derived from an Irish tavern song that ended with the line, "Will you come up to Limerick?"

The word "limerick" was first used to describe this form of nonsense verse in 1896.

There once was a man named Lear

Who was smarter than he did appear.

"I'll write some nonsense!

And earn a few pence

Then we'll have some money, my dear."

Limericks have been an enduring kind of poetry. Though no longer as fashionable as in 19th-century England, limericks are still enjoyed by a 21st-century audience. Contemporary limericks range from witty to ribald, from lighthearted to dark. Modern writers such as Ogden Nash, Richard Lederer and Isaac Asimov (yep, the sci-fi writer) have penned limericks.

Though there are some poets who write poetic or serious limericks, the form is, for the most part, the most irreverent form of poetry. Limericks do not have the formality of sonnets or the intensity of haikus. So ...

Try writing this kind of a poem.

A limerick surely will whoa-'em.

If they don't sound good

Or quite like they should,

You can always crumple and throw 'em.

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