How to write a limerick

Just in case you were wondering…

One of the best known, and least respected, forms of poetry is the limerick. Everybody knows at least one, and possibly even one that can safely be recited in the company of one’s mother. Most, however, cannot, because the limerick somehow lends it self to matters racy and sexual.

I enjoy limericks. I find them sticky – that is, they stick in my head, both the dirty ones and the clean ones. Oh, not all of them, of course, because I’m sure I’ve run across hundreds over the years, but I’d probably be able to pull twenty or so up if push came to shove. I also like to write them. Occasionally in our writing group we’ve done prompts to write limericks, and everybody comes up with something witty and amusing.

As a poetic form it’s relatively undemanding. You need only two rhymes, one of which may be a name, and wordplay is encouraged. The first line is often “There once was a fellow named [Name]” or “There was a young lady from [Place]”, so there’s almost a whole line done for you. The rhythm is simple and bouncy and conducive to silliness. It is, I suppose, the poetic equivalent of a paper cup; something light and disposable. Or, if you’re inclined the the scatalogical, like toilet paper. Your call.

Anyway, I’ve done the instructions for writing a limerick, and I herewith present them. They are, of course, in limerick form because, well, why not?

How to write a limerick

You start,“There was [someone] named [who]”

Then you give them some odd thing to do.

In two short lines expand

On the matter at hand,

Give the last line a twist, and you’re through.

If you like, make it saucy and flirty,

Even risqué, if not downright dirty,

And you’d better watch who

You’re reciting them to;

Some audiences can be shirty.

Another favourite of mine is the double dactyl. I’ve only written a few. They’re more complex, but still a lot of fun. The verse form was invented by Anthony Hecht and John Hollander in 1966. I can’t do better for a description than this one from the double-dactyl website

The poem consists of one sentence containing forty-four syllables that are distributed over eight lines and fall into two four-line stanzas. The first three lines of each stanza are dactylic dimeter; the last one is a choriamb. The two stanzas end with a masculine rhyme on the last syllable of the choriamb. The

final feature of the form is found in line six of the poem: a single, six-syllable word which is a double-dactyl. 

The instructions below were written by Hollander himself.

Long-short-short, long-short-short
   Dactyls in dimeter,
   Verse form with choriambs
   (Masculine rhyme):
One sentence (two stanzas)
   Challenges poets who
   Don't have the time.

[A dactyl is a metrical foot with three syllables, the first one stressed and the following two unstressed. MAR-gar-et is a dactyl. HEX-a-syl-LAB-ic-ly is a double dactyl. A choriamb is a metrical foot consisting of four syllables – two stressed ones bracketing two unstressed ones. The phrase MAS-cu-line RHYME is a choriamb.]

I like playing around with new poetic forms now and again. If you’re up for it, try a limerick or a double dactyl. I’d like to see what you come up with!

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