Thursday, March 16, 2017

Carrie Clickard: Limerick Writers Anonymous

Happy St. Paddy's Day! 

I'm afraid you won't find a single pint of beer (green or otherwise) at Today's Little Ditty, but raise your glass if you know what you will find . . .

Photo: Sean an Scuab

Yeah, y'ar right!  With a touch of Leprechaun magic, you can be transported to the 16 posts that live at Limerick Alley.

It's been over a year since we've entertained any new ones, but as luck would have it, Carrie Clickard is here to satisfy your thirst for this looks-easy-but-isn't poetry form. She's filled her paddy wagon with a ditty-load of 'em, so let's join her for the ride, shall we?  It'll be grand!

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Welcome to another Rhyme Crime Investigation

... and the first official meeting of Limerick Writers Anonymous.

There’s a rustle of shuffling feet and a surreptitious slurping of coffee as the meeting comes to order.  Stepping up to a rickety podium in front of the thicket of folding chairs, a determined but ill at ease woman clears her throat and says: “Hi, my name is Carrie, and I’m a limerick writer.”

What? No chorus of comradely hello’s back?  Sigh.  It’s hard to find anyone who’ll stand up and proudly declare themselves a limerick writer—which is a pity for a poetic form that can count Elizabeth I, Thomas Aquinas, Aristophanes, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Rudyard Kipling and Shakespeare among its practitioners. A swift search of YouTube will also offer up limericks recited by Garrison Keillor, Michael Palin, Christopher Hitchens and even a NASA astronaut.

No, really—one of the questions on the NASA application asked astronaut candidates to describe their selection process in a tweet, a haiku or a limerick.  If you watch the video you'll discover his limerick is a bit of a metrical shambles, but as a poet, how cool is it knowing that there’s one part of the astronaut’s application process we could ACE? I’m trading in my comfy sweats for a spacesuit.

So why has this once-proud five line AABBA form ended up in the doggerel house?  It might have just a bit to do with content.  Morris Bishop expressed the problem wittily in a limerick of his own:
The limerick is furtive and mean;
You must keep her in close quarantine,
Or she sneaks to the slums
And promptly becomes
Disorderly, drunk, and obscene.

It’s true.  The limericks everyone seems to remember have lines that end in Nantucket. (No, no, I’m not going to repeat it. Look it up if you must.)  But it’s not just bad behavior that gets limerick writers sneered at, it’s bad SCANSION. Time and again you find limericks limping along with scraggly line length, verb inversions, forced meter a regular rogue’s gallery of Rhyme Crime perpetrators.  You’d think with only five lines it would be easy-peasy to keep rhyme crisp, clean and correct. But like a certain bishop in Hong Kong, you’d be wrong.

Researching for this post I found a surprising number of clunkers from poets whose pen I’m not worthy to touch. Like:
There is a poor sneak called Rossetti

As a painter with many kicks met he

With more as a man

But sometimes he ran

And that saved the rear of Rossetti.

                                                       Dante Gabriel Rossetti
There was a professor named Chesterton
Who went for a walk with his best shirt on
Being hungry he ate it
but lived to regret it
and ruined his life for his digestion.

                                                       W S Gilbert

Ouch.  I could add a dozen more examples, but if you’ve been following along with the Rhyme Crime posts, you’re probably already diagnosing the problems and fixing them in your head.  “Ate it” and “regret it” don’t rhyme, even in a Cockney accent.  “Kicks met he” is an inversion you wouldn’t get away with today.  The lines aren’t consistent in syllable length.  And whether “best shirt on” and digestion rhyme is debatable.  So if two such noted poets can slip up, can we hope to do better?  We can but try, as my English teacher used to say.

Don't miss a beat

Back in the day, limericks most often used anapestic meter  – two short syllables followed by a long one – three feet in lines 1, 2 and 5, and only two  feet in lines 3 and 4. So:
(A)     Da da dum  da da dum  da da dum

(A)     Da da dum  da da dum  da da dum

(B)     Da da dum  da da dum

(B)     Da da dum  da da dum

(A)     Da da dum  da da dum  da da dum
Anapestic verse was a favorite of Dr. Seuss, and thus holds a special place in my heart, but if it isn’t your cup of tea, that’s ok.  Modern limericks can be written in your meter-of-choice but the rules still apply.  Rhythm must be consistent, unforced and you need to have a uniform number of beats in rhyming lines. If you have to put the em-PHAS-is on the wrong syl-LA-ble, or swallow a syllable to make things fit, go back and rewrite. You can do better.

Now before you throw out the baby with the bathwater, remember we’re ruling out weak word choices, not the joy of wordplay. The fun Ogden Nash has in this verse is enough to make any critic overlook the one extra beat.
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill can hold more than his beli-can.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the heli-can.

The same can be said for Mark Twain’s clever abbreviated verse.  Be sure you read  “Co.” as “company” and do the same at the end of lines 2 and 5 or you’ll miss the joke.
A man hired by John Smith and Co.
Loudly declared that he’d tho.
Men that he saw
Dumping dirt by the door
The drivers, therefore, didn’t do.  *
Funny enough to forgive those clunky lines 3 and 4? You decide.

* Michelle here: for Twain-challenged folk like myself, read company/thump any/dump any.

Wait, is it form or funny that’s more important?

Excellent question.
This limerick is simply sublime
It’s flawless in meter and rhyme.
As for wit, pun or thought?
It expresses but naught

and to write it took acres of time.


Like any poem, a good limerick will communicate with the reader, expressing a meaning, a feeling, or both.  Whether your intent is jovial, snide, silly, bawdy, romantic or educational, if you don’t get your point across, all the reader ends up with is a collection of syllables.  You’ve got five lines and a handful of syllables to do it in. Use them wisely.

Scare your readers:
Each night father fills me with dread

when he sits on the foot of my bed;

I’d not mind that he speaks

in vile gibbers and squeaks

but for seventeen years he's been dead.

                                                       Edward Gorey
Teach them something:
It filled Galileo with mirth

To watch his two rocks fall to Earth.
He gladly proclaimed,

"Their rates are the same,
And quite independent of girth!

                                                       American Physical Society contest entry
Break their hearts:
My life has become a motif

of daily compassion and grief,

of watching the ends

of lovers and friends

whose candles have been far too brief.

                         Lawrence Schimel 
                         From … Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Metres,
                         edited by Annie Finch and Alexandra Oliver:

Leave them laughing:
A young girl at college, Miss Breeze,

Weighted down by B.A.s and Lit.D's,

Collapsed from the strain,

Said her doctor, "It's plain

You are killing yourself — by degrees!"


And we’re doing all this, why?

Clearly some good hard work and poetry chops go into limerick writing, when you’re doing it right. What are you going to do with them now that you’ve got those little witty jewels polished to perfection?  Send them out into the world to earn a living, naturally.

Try the Saturday Evening Post Limerick Contest.  Six times a year the Saturday Evening Post holds a limerick contest based on one of their iconic cover illustrations.  Winners are published in the print magazine, online and win a small cash prize.  A select few talented runners up get published on the website too, like someone we all know and love here at Today’s Little Ditty, Ms. Michelle Heidenrich Barnes.  You can read her fabulous limerick on the Saturday Evening Post site here and learn about how to enter the contest yourself here.

What about The Washington Post’s Style Invitational weekly contest that rotates between headlines, punkus (haikus with puns), limericks and other fun forms?

And, drumroll please, if you happen to be both a limerick fan and a word nerd like me, here’s an irresistible opportunity: The Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form.  Uh huh, you heard that right.  Their goal is to “write at least one limerick for each meaning of each and every word in the English language. Our best limericks will clearly define their words in a humorous or interesting way, although some may provide more entertainment than definition, or vice versa.”  They’re currently working on Aa through Ge, and expect to be completed in 2076.

I am so going to do this.  Maybe I’ll start with E for “Equations” like the brainiac who turned this mathematical equation into a limerick:

It’s not a trick.  There IS a limerick in all those number.  Here’s a little clue: Think of words we might use in place of numbers, for example people often say a “dozen” eggs instead of twelve.

Give up? (I certainly did.) So, here's the answer:

A dozen, a gross, and a score

Plus three times the square root of four

Divided by seven

Plus five times eleven

Is nine squared and not a bit more.

                                                       Jon Saxton

That’s some wicked clever thinking and some pretty mad limerick skills as well.  Feeling inspired? What are you still doing here?  Go on, get out there and WRITE.

Maestro? A little St. Patrick’s Day exit music please …

Cheers, Carrie!  I had a whale of a good time!

Read Carrie's other Rhyme Crime posts on Today's Little Ditty:

Carrie L. Clickard is an internationally published author and poet.  Her first picture book, VICTRICIA MALICIA, debuted in 2012 from Flashlight Press. Forthcoming books include MAGIC FOR SALE (Holiday House, 2017), DUMPLING DREAMS (Simon and Schuster 2017) and THOMAS JEFFERSON & THE MAMMOTH HUNT (Simon and Schuster, 2018). Her poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals including Spider, Muse, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Havok, Myriad Lands, Clubhouse, Spellbound, Penumbra, Haiku of the Dead, Underneath the Juniper Tree, Inchoate Echoes, and The Brisling Tide.  

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I sure have been enjoying all the ode poems inspired by Helen Frost's DMC challenge! Featured poems this week included "Ode to a Dewdrop" by LeeAnn Blankenship, "Ode to My Coffee Cup" by Rebekah Hoeft, "Ode to Grapefruit!" by Cindy Breedlove, and "Ode to My Mother's Popcorn Pan" by Doraine Bennett. You can read Kat Apel's and Carol Varsalona's odes at their blogs today, and enjoy student odes by Jone MacCulloch's Poetry Rocks group at Check It Out. View all of the ode poems contributed so far (and add your own) on our March 2017 padlet. 

Robyn Hood Black has her own St. Patrick's/Poetry Friday party going at Life on the Deckle Edge. See you there for this week's roundup!


  1. I am inspired! At least to write a limerick or two. We'll see how they turn out before proceeding any further!

    1. Thanks for stopping in! And wishing you a bit of good old Irish luck if you decide to submit your work!

  2. Brava! What a thoroughly enjoyable, informative post. Loved every word. Enjoyed all the limericks, good and bad. :)

    1. Thanks, Jama -- it was a world of fun to research. Glad it was enjoyable for you too!

  3. Wow, again I know they're tough, but Carrie you give us hope through instruction! I love that mathematical one. It's time to write verse form awhile, will give others listening a smile. . .

    1. Wasn't that math one a doozy? The cleverness of some people just astounds me!

  4. Loved this post! Am a fan of the limerick! Fun to write, fun to read --never the naughty ones! :) Thanks for the inverted verb reminder-- I am often guilty of that crime!

    1. Me too on the inverted verbs, Rebekah. I blame all those Victorian poets my professors made me read. (wink)

  5. I could've used this handy guide last week when I tried my hand at limericks! They're​ so deceptively simple yet maddeningly difficult to get right! I have so much respect for poets who can make crafting limericks look effortless.

    1. So right you are about the maddening task it can be getting a limerick perfect. They look so harmless, but end up a revision nightmare. (speaking personally)

  6. Replies
    1. Thanks Buffy --- Always a good time and a good crowd with Michelle!

  7. I was wowed by the limericks you shared! Made me lol for real :-)

    1. Thanks Tabatha - I confess I giggled through writing a good bit of it.

  8. This post is great fun. Thanks so much.

    1. As my Irish friends and relations say, if it's not fun, it doesn't belong on St. Patrick's Day. (grin) Thanks for joining in with us.

  9. Oh, my head hurts
    from rhyme crimes and words spurts
    I think I will thank you
    and seek my own break through
    of limericks and poetry flirts

    Ba dum dum!

    1. LOL! Mitchell you take the cake! A perfect way to sign off on a St. Patrick's day limerick feast!

    2. And let me correct that to "Linda" and not Mitchell. I'm not quite caffeinated up this morning. Sorry.

    3. Haha! Watch out for those word spurts, Linda. They can get messy. :)

  10. It's been a pleasure, as always, stopping in at Today's Little Ditty. Thank you Michelle, and everyone who made yesterday such fun.

    BFFs Mindy and Min,
    Skated out where the ice was quite thin,
    Had a quarrel, no doubt,
    For I hear they fell out;
    What a blessing they didn't fall in!

    Happy weekend!

    1. What a great limerick! And always a blessing to have you here, Carrie. I will happily fall into your posts any ol' time. :)

  11. Well, I learned quite a bit about limericks today. Thank you. This was great!

    The limerick poet Clickard
    teaches techniques and tricks of the bard.
    With rhyme and word plays
    has us all in a daze.
    Using her tips, it doesn't look hard!

    (Sorry, couldn't resist playing with your irresistible last name, C.L.!)

    1. Violet, you totally rock! I'm pinning that up on my bulletin bard .. I mean board. (grin) Thanks for witty response!

    2. Ha! Well done, Violet!

      Wow, Carrie— I bow to your limerick barditude! I sometimes leave folks in a daze too, but it's usually a daze of confusion. ;)

  12. Limericks are a challenge, as you've laid out nicely. I've borrowed the form to tell a story, linking up three limericks, rather like the Japanese poets link up tankas, but I am aware this is a divergence from the rules. Sometimes the writing of limericks reminds me of writing tankas, in counting syllables, staying to five lines, varying the line length and trying to find the elusive element. In Limericks, the humorous surprise. In tanka's, the epiphany revealed by nature. Thanks for sharing Michelle's limerick. I liked it. What a challenge to write a limerick from a magazine cover.

    1. You make a really interesting comparison to writing tanka, Brenda! Thanks for the nice words about my SEP limerick, too. :)

    2. You have encouraged me to brush up my knowledge of tanka, Brenda. Thanks for that and for sharing your insight. Glad you stopped in!

  13. Finally getting around to leaving comments on all the great posts I visited Friday. Michelle - another keeper/winner; Carrie, thank you for all the time and thought and wit and wisdom in this fulsome Limerick tour! Loved it all, and the link to Michelle's poem. (Deep bow, tweed cap in hand.)