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How to Compose a Limerick

It’s funny how we like funny! Limericks are the light-hearted person’s stepping stones into the world of poetry. Let’s overview the rules of limerick composition.

Limericks Are Not Easy, Just Easier

It’s no joke that writing is a difficult trade to learn. Try winning a writing competition, and you’ll see what I mean. You have to know what you want to do and find the inspiration within yourself to do your best. We should always be writing as if we’re entering a competition; with enthusiasm and diligence. When we lose interest—when we fall out of love with what we’re doing—it always shows in our work. And, when we lose interest in our work, we lose interest in learning how to do it better. We writers must always try to learn to do our job better, because no matter how good we get, there will always be room for improvement.

Even the greats of literary history were still learning their craft when they passed their torches on to the next generations. However, even in light of this, there are some forms of writing that are easier than others. If you think writing a novella with a solid plot is hard, wait until you try your hand at some of the forms of poetry like the rondeau or the triolet

Limerick Origins

The limerick falls under the light verse category. Light verse deals with material that has no meditative or serious qualities in their mood or intent, rather, are often cynical, humorous, or filled with satire. Over the last few decades, sarcasm and patronizing verse has joined ranks with these motives for writing limericks.

Most English scholars are quite unsure of the exact origins of the limerick verse. Some theorize that it was an Old French from brought back to Limerick, Ireland, by the Irish Brigade around 1700 AD. The more popular theory is that it was ad-lib sung at parties to a refrain of “Oh, will you come up to ol’ Limerick.”

The first recorded Limericks can be found in The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women, published in 1821. The author of this collection is unknown, though some have ascribed it to a person named Loane, and others have given over to thinking that James Harris & Son, a London Publisher of the time, is the author as well as the publisher.

Later on in the nineteenth century, Edward Lear had a collection published that he entitled Book of Nonsense, in 1846. This book did two things for the world of poetry: it helped to popularize the limerick form, and it gave other more prominent poets a title for that particular flavour of poetry: nonsense verse. For more on nonsense verse, check out #7 under the sub-heading Some Styles of Poetry and Free Verse in World of Poetry 2: The Free Verse.

Limerick Construction:

The typical structure of the Limerick falls into a pentastich (a five-line poem) that has three lines of trimeter and two lines of dimeter in two patterns of anapest. For more on these technicalities, check out World of Poetry 4: The Poem. Sometimes the first one or two unstressed syllables get left out, or appended to the previous line, but the basic structure still depends on anapests for syllabic stress. As in:

Ba-da-BING, ba-da-BING, ba-da-BOOM-ba,

da-BING, ba-da-BING, ba-da-BOOM-ba.

          Ba-da-BOOM, ba-da-BING

          ba-da-BOOM, ba-da-BING;

da-BOOM, ba-da-BING, ba-da-BOOM-ba.

Understanding Limerick Flow

The bings and booms are, of course, the stressed syllables, and they are used here to show where the end-rhymes should fall as well. However, it’s important to know how the flow of these stressed syllables will work in your favor. If you don’t take the time to understand that, then your word-choice will trip up the flow of your limerick, and your reader will be wondering where your inflections are. Mottled wordings kill the flow of a limerick very quickly. Even if your punch-line is hilarious, the struggle to get there will have at least partially ruined it.

The best way to avoid jumbled words is to eliminate as many stressed words as possible, and to avoid using longer words that have more than one stressed syllable (unless the stresses fall exactly three syllables apart, as is possible in MIS-un-der-STAND, TE-le-fak-SI-mi-le, or in combinations of words like POINT of de-PAR-ture, or MES-sy be-GIN-nings). Also, one of the biggest problems is using compound nouns and combinations of single syllable words that are stressed. This would be an example of bad word-usage in a limerick: tear apart books, cross wide brooks, send strong signals, failing that just add water, canned fish, broken wings, honey locust, penny-wise penny-pincher, fired dumped and robbed. These kinds of word combinations are too jumbled with stresses to be used in a flowing three-beat limerick line. Instead, add in more unstressed words and syllables and put in just enough to separate syllables into threes. Tear apart books could become: I was TEARing aPART any BOOK-ends. Cross wide brooks could become: If this brook’s only crossing was wider. Fired dumped and robbed might become: Well, he dumped me, then fired me and robbed me.

I just recently took some of these combinations and formed a new limerick. If you’re interested it’s called Departure, A Limerick.

In beginning the limerick, it’s important to know the punch-line, or turn of thought. This usually always happens in the fourth or fifth line. When you have your punch-line worked out, and some good rhymes (For some good ways to rhyme, check out World of Poetry 5: Rhyme), then try to organize the rest of your limerick as a set up to that punch line. If you find that you work in the opposite direction more easily, then do what works for you.

Traditional Limericks

Traditionally speaking, the limerick deals with “foolish foreigners or friends”, mocking the person from a certain place for any reason the speaker of the limerick deems worthy of satire. Also, in the first line, not necessarily the person is named, but the place is named and the place-name is usually the instigator of the initial rhyme, and is repeated as the closing rhyme. Here is a prime example from Lear:

There was an old Man of the Dee,
who was sadly annoyed by a Flea;
    when he said, “I will scratch it!”
    they gave him a hatchet,
which grieved that old Man of the Dee.

Modern and Contemporary Limericks

In the twentieth century, the traditional closing rhyme was being left out more often. Even though the composers of the modern time maintained the narrative style by beginning in reference to a “foolish foreigner or friend”, the second mentioning of the place-name was dropped in favour of other satirical possibilities and synthetic rhymes with those place-names.

However, contemporaries have done away completely with the opening narrative, leaving the subject and intentions of the limerick to a more unlimited approach. Many have adopted a retort-style of limerick in which one author will jest at another and will receive one in return. Some have even stretched the meaning of the nonsense verse to its whimsical limits.

In conclusion, the limerick is not the easiest thing in the world to write, but practising is fun. Once in awhile we all mine out a good one, so keep at it. Don’t forget to use your Rhymer and to have fun!

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