“What is a limerick, and why do you write them?”
As my followers have likely noticed, I write more limericks than any self-respecting person should. Some people might wonder why an otherwise normal human being would dedicate so much time and thought to writing absurd poems. The answer is simple: limericks are fun and easy to write, composing them is an enjoyable mental exercise, and sharing them can brighten a person’s day.
Perhaps some of you would like to give writing limericks a try. If so, you might enjoy this guide clarifying the form’s distinguishing features. [Those interested in poetic form, in general, might also benefit from this brief guide’s explanation of essential poetic terms and concepts.]
The form: Limericks are five-line anapestic poems containing three lines of rhyming anapestic trimeter and two lines of rhyming anapestic dimeter. The rhyme scheme is AABBA.
“What is an anapest?”
An anapest is a metrical foot. Before explaining anapests, I will familiarize you with poetic feet. In poetry, a foot is a pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. The most common foot in English-language poetry is the iamb, which contains an unstressed syllable (usually notated as “u”) followed by a stressed or accented syllable (usually notated as ´); for readers’ benefit, I will use capital letters to indicate stressed syllables and lowercase letters to indicate unstressed ones. Some examples of iambs would be: reCEIVE, beLIEVE, the CAT. Prepositions, articles, and conjunctions tend to be unstressed. To determine which syllables of a polysyllabic word are stressed and which unstressed, divide the word into syllables and pronounce the word while paying attention to the length of each syllable’s sound.
While iambs contain two syllables, anapests contain three that follow a pattern of unstressed, unstressed, stressed: the beLIEF, to deCEIVE, with a BROOM, in the WOODS. Since anapests occur less frequently and naturally in regular speech than iambs, the consecutive anapests in limericks’ lines have a musical and often whimsical quality that distinguishes them clearly as poetry and makes them fun to recite.
“What are dimeter and trimeter?
“Meter” refers to the number and type of poetic feet in a line. Two-part names are used to identify meter: 1. Type of foot [anapest=anapestic, iamb=iambic]; 2. Numerical prefix + “meter” [monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, etc.]. If the foot is, for example, an iamb, one might refer to the meter as “iambic pentameter.” A line of iambic pentameter—the most common meter in Anglophone poetry—contains five [“penta-“] iambs; for example, “She’d MURD/ered PEOP/le JUST/to WATCH/them DIE” (from my poem “Portrait of a Mass Murder”: https://paulwhitberg.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/portrait-of-a-mass-murderer/ ). Scanning the previous example will reveal that the line contains ten syllables divided into five iambs.
In limericks, anapestic trimeter is the meter of lines one, two, and five. The following limericks, which you might recognize from my blog ( https://paulwhitberg.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/5-limericks-a-day-to-keep-the-dr-away-by-paul-oburgess-day-14/), will serve nicely as examples. For now, please study lines one, two, and five; the slashes divide the lines into anapests.
at the EDGE,/ he said, “JUMP/ now and DIE!”
But the GIRL/ still reFUSED/ to comPLY.
To make her obey,
He yodeled all day,
And she WAS/ thus perSUAD/ed to FLY.
Please note that many limerick writers substitute an iamb for the first foot of some lines; this substitution is especially common in a limerick’s first line:
a MAN/ who had BROK/en some HEARTS
DeCID/ed to SELL/ them at MARTS.
“Though unable to beat,
There’s no tastier meat,”
he’d SAY/when proMOT/ing those PARTS.
Notice how the first foot (“a MAN”) is an iamb, but the following feet (“who had BROK/en some HEARTS”) are anapests. Despite the initial iambic substitution, the line’s meter is still considered to be anapestic trimeter.
The meter of lines three and four is anapestic dimeter: “though unAB/le to BEAT” and “there’s no TAST/i er MEAT”).
“What is an AABBA rhyme scheme?”
“Rhyme scheme” refers to the pattern of ending rhymes, and ending rhymes are simply words concluding a line that rhyme with words concluding other lines. The traditional method for indicating rhyme schemes is to assign different letters to lines that end with different sounds. If two lines contain the same final sound, one should assign the same letter to both lines. Since it is the first line, “A man who had broken some hearts” would be labeled “A,” and since they rhyme with the first line, the following lines would also be labeled “A”: “Decided to sell them at marts” and “He’d say when promoting those parts.” Line three—“Though unable to beat”–is labeled “B” because it does not rhyme with the first two lines.
“Here endeth the guide”
Thank you for reading, and feel free to contact me with any questions about limericks and poetic form. Please let me know if you would like for me to clarify anything in this guide or write explanations of other forms.
by Paul Burgess