Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A word about limericks

And I sure hope my daughter's sixth-grade English teacher is reading this. A limerick, unlike some other forms of verse, does not have a restricted syllable count. It's got a stressed beat pattern.

Limericks are five-line poems, almost always humorous, and quite frequently bawdy. Edward Lear is sometimes credited with inventing them, but they existed a good 100 years before his birth in published form.

They are a song-based poem, with common wisdom being that they came from a tavern song (hence the humor and bawdiness references). If you're a musical type (and I'm not just talking to here), you will understand when I tell you that limericks are recited in 6/8 time, and begin on a pickup to the first "measure."

I will write it out for you as best I can -- ta is a pickup (the 6th beat of a 6-beat measure). Capitalized Da is a stressed syllable, and lowercase da is an unstressed syllable of the poem's text. The numbers in parenthesis are actually the count of the rest, when you've paused at the end of the line.

ta Da da da Da da da Da (2-3-4-5-)
ta Da da da Da da da Da (2-3-4-5-)
ta Da da da Da (2-)
ta Da da da Da (2-)
ta Da da da Da da da Da

They often begin "There once was . . . ", but not always. They are almost always in rhyme, as follows: AABBA (all three long lines rhyme, and the two short lines rhyme with one another).

Sometimes, the last stressed beat has syllables after it -- they cut into the "rest" time, but the beat goes on just the same.


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.
&emsp &emsp by Dixon Lanier Merritt

or, for a mildly bawdy one:

There was a young lady from Lynn,
Who thought that to love was a sin;
But when she was tight,
She thought it quite right,
So everyone filled her with gin.

Again, there's no ACTUAL syllabic requirement, although truly, 10 is the most you can fit in a long line, and seven is the most for the short lines. (Minimums are pretty much 8 and 5.)

Then why, I ask you, did my daughter's teacher send home a sheet telling them they had to count syllables in order to write limericks, with no regard for the stressed meter of the poem? *Heavy sigh*

And I offered to come in and do a poetry presentation if she wanted, but they're pressed for time and jamming poetry into 5 days at the end of the school year. Not that that's kept her from requiring the kids to write an entire book of poetry using her incorrect patterns. (You should see what she said a cinquain was -- it was also all wrong, because she told them it was a certain number of words per line, when the key to a cinquain is syllables Blurgh.)

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