Tuesday, June 15, 2010

There once was a man from Nantucket (or, Why I love limericks)

As some of you know, I write poetry. So I would like to tell you about my most favourite, no competition, above-all-rubies sort of poem.

The limerick.

I love limericks. There, I've said it. I'd rather read a good limerick than a good sonnet. That bastion of information (Wikipedia), says the limerick is "sometimes obscene, with humorous intent."

(I think I'd like that on my gravestone. "Here lies Anna Ryan-Punch. She was sometimes obscene, with humorous intent.")

The reason they're known as 'limericks' is the source of a bit of debate, but most sources say it's because they fit into a song, the chorus of which begins 'Oh won't you come up to Limerick', and any limerick slots into the verse tune. (When I was a kid we sang limericks to a similar sort of song, where the chorus encouraged: "So sing me another verse that's worse than the first verse, make sure that it's foolish and silly.") As you all know, the limerick is a 5-line rhyming stanza (aabba) written in anapestic or amphibrachic metre.

There. Educational part of the blog concluded.

Limericks are funny, mostly naughty, rhyming poems. What's not to love? Well, apparently some people don't like them. When I professed my love of limericks to my fellow librarian Alana, she said: "But they're lame, and they're always rude." She's probably right. I think this is why I like them. They appeal to my love of bad puns:

'I must leave here,' said Lady De Vere,
'For these damp airs don't suit me, I fear.'
Said her friend: 'Goodness me!
If they don't agree
With your system, why eat pears, my dear?'

They appeal to my love of swearing:

There was a young man of Nepal
Who had a mathematical ball;
The cube of it's weight
Times Pi, minus eight
Is four thirds the root of fuck all.

They often poke fun at figures political, literary and academic. Being married to a philosopher (and in having majored in philosophy at uni in a past life), among my favourites are the ones that poke fun at philosophers:

An example of Kant's sterling wit
Was his theory that farts could be lit,
And it's said that all night
By the flickering light,
He composed his 'Critique of Pure Shit'.
(Victor Gray)

This one is obviously a firm fave in our household (especially when needing to bitch about academia):

When a man's too old even to toss off, he
Can sometimes be consoled by philosophy.
One frequently shows a
Strong taste for Spinoza
When one's balls are beginning to ossify.
(Robert Conquest)

I'm not a big fan of the Edward Lear limericks (the ones that end with pretty much the same line they started with, and aren't rude, and as a result of both these things, aren't funny):

There was an Old Man in a tree,
Who was horribly stung by a bee;
When they said: 'Does it buzz?'
He replied: 'Yes it does.
It's a regular brute of a bee!
(Edward Lear)

See? Yawn. But there's a reply to this limerick of his that I find absurdly funny:

There was an old man of St Bees
Who was horribly stung by a wasp.
When they said: 'Does it hurt?'
He replied: 'No it doesn't -
It's a good job it wasn't a hornet!'
(Sir William S. Gilbert)

I love this. It's poking fun at how Lear's limerick is so lame, but even when I didn't know it was a reply to Lear, I still thought it was hilarious. It gets recited often at our family gatherings (which gives you an idea of how I came to be the person I am today).

There are people who are even more into limericks than me. The OEDILF (The Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form) project aims to write one limerick on the subject of every single word in the English language. No joke. So far they've got 61786 'approved' limericks. I'm not sure of the details of the approval process, but I'm sure it's very rigorous.

Scholar of rudey humour Gershon Legman maintained that the true limerick is always obscene. But in case you think I am a bawdy old wench who just likes to make jokes about balls and boobs all day (you can lead a horticulture, etc.), I also love those rare limericks that manage to be delightful without being rude at all:

A psychiatrist fellow from Rye
Went to visit another close by,
Who said, with a grin,
As he welcomed him in:
'Hullo, Smith! You're all right! How am I?'
(Stephen Cass)

A combustible woman from Thang
Exploded one day with a BANG!
The maid then rushed in,
And said with a grin,
'Pardon me Madam - you rang?'
(Spike Milligan)

A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill can hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week
But I'm damned if I see how the helican.
(Dixon Merritt)

One of my favourite books of poetry that I used to nick off my mum's bookshelf is the Penguin Book of Limericks (ed. E.O. Parrott). It is now housed on my bookshelves between Ovid and Rilke (which is funny in itself). I probably wasn't really supposed to be reading it (given that it contains more sex and swearing than Deadwood and True Blood combined) but I thought it was great. I loved how the rhythm and rhyme scheme of limericks made me laugh even if they weren't terribly funny or I didn't really get it, and how the really good ones can still make me cry laughing. And I suspect that that the randy old Dean at Harvard was right:

At Harvard a randy old Dean
Said: 'The funniest jokes are obscene.
To bowdlerize wit
Takes the shit out of it -
Who wants a limerick clean?


Penni said...

Oh! Have you read Wendy Cope's Wastleand Limericks. Number three is my favourite


The Thames runs, bones rattle, rats creep;
Tiresias fancies a peep--
A typist is laid,
A record is played--
Wei la la. After this it gets deep.


Anna said...

Ha! I love it. Have you seen that "100 Classic Books In Haiku" book? Most diverting.

Megan said...

As a bawdy old wench who DOES like to make jokes about balls and boobs all day, I really appreciated this post. The Kant one especially tickled me, having recently suffered through a semester-long seminar on Kant and art. I think my favorite new phrase has to be "the square root of fuck all".

- Megan

Anna said...

Alright, you got me, I AM bawdy old wench.

But, were you fooled for just a minute?

Dr. Goose said...

What a pleasure to find another aficionado (aficionada?) of limericks. Here's one of my favorites, which captures the genre quite nicely:

"The Limerick's furtive and mean,
To be kept under close quarantine,
Or she'll sneak to the slums,
Where she promptly becomes
Disorderly, drunk and obscene."

Last fall I was inspired to begin a blog devoted to daily limericks about the economy (not the raciest topic one could fit into five lines, I admit). The best received of these "Limericks Économiques" so far is this:

"There are two indisputable facts
That toppled the Greeks on their backs:
Every third Greek today
Works for government pay,
And the rest are evading their tax."

Thanks for a very entertaining post!

Kirsty Murray said...

Delicious. There's nothing more perfect than a good limerick. Thanks, Anna. I'd post a couple of mine here but they're too rude for public forums (particularly as they involve various friends and relatives).

Anna said...

Dr Goose - ha! Do you call them "economicks"?

And Kirsty - are there ones circulating about you, too? Not much rhymes with Kirsty...thirsty?