My mother loved limericks.
Her favorite, which she recited with a sparkle in her eye and a bounce in her step, was…
Mom was a skier before there were ski lifts, and a figure skater — who came out of a giant shoe in an ice show at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden when she was a teenager.
She had great success in the cold.
Bird’s Eye Frozen Peas serve many purposes. You can keep them in your freezer. You can eat them. You can use them as surprisingly effective ice packs.
And, they will forever serve as the punch line of my mother’s most beloved limerick.
For which I am grateful.
When I heard my town — Westport, CT — was having a limerick contest, I pricked up my ears.
My friend, Jason, said,
“You can win this!”
As a songwriter, poet, and comedian, I thought I had a shot.
A limerick is a silly five line rhyming poem. The 1st, 2nd, and 5th lines are trimeter or tetrameter (Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter), ending with the same rhyme. Each has either three, or four, stressed syllables. Since the form can be, and often is, somewhat inexact, these lines can be anapestic trimeter, meaning da-da-duh, da-da-duh, da-da-duh, or iambic tetrameter, meaning da-duh, da-duh, da-duh, da-duh. Two shorter middle rhyming dimeter or trimeter lines, with two stressed syllables, serve to create contrast in lines 3 and 4.
Limericks have an AABBA rhyme scheme.
A perfect limerick might sound like this.
Or, like this.
They fairly dance off the page.
And, can inspire paroxysms of delight.
This makes sense since their origin may be traced to song.
Limerick is an Irish city in County Limerick, part of the province of Munster.
Even so, some believe the archaic English tune, “Won’t You Come to Limerick?” serves as the foundation for the form. Its rhythm and rhyme scheme are reminiscent of current limericks.
Others attribute the origin of the limerick to drinking songs based on the melody of Cielito Lindo, an 1882 composition by Quirino Mendoza y Cortés which has become known as the traditional song of Mexico.
In America, Cielito Lindo’s melody became ubiquitous through the Foote, Cone & Belding 1967 ad campaign for Frito Lay corn chips.
My mother taught me to do whatever I undertake to the best of my abilities. As a spiritual teacher, I know that I benefit from everything I do.
By that, I don’t mean recognition and prizes. I mean I grow and expand through contribution.
My first singing teacher drilled into me,
“The result is the effort put in.”
I know, as well, someone almost always puts in more effort. And quite possibly, possesses more ability, skill or talent.
I didn’t know if I would win the competition.
I knew, though, I would have fun entering.
And, that I would give it my best.
As a limerick lover himself, Westport’s Transit District Director, Peter Gold, came up with the idea of a limerick contest as a way to publicize the local Wheels 2 U Shuttle Service. He is far from alone. Building on Edward Lear’s mid-19th century popularity in England, limerick competitions sprang up in legions, at times generating more mail than post offices could handle.
Wheels 2 U works like Uber and Lyft. You request a pickup through an app on your phone. Except, ride sharing takes the form of a subsidized shuttle with a cost of $2. The service reduces congestion and pollution.
Wheels 2 U users neither have to find, nor pay for, daily parking.
Westport is a family community about an hour Northeast of the Big Apple. It’s a commuting town. Tom Rath (Gregory Peck), the protagonist of ‘The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit’ — perhaps, the most iconic commuting movie ever filmed — lived in Wesport.
By train on Metro North’s coastal route, the ride from Westport to 42nd Street’s Grand Central Station takes a bit more than an hour — less if you grab an express.
My father commuted on the train every working day of every summer. He would settle into one of the solid, red and white, high backed seats and peruse his elegantly folded copy of the day’s New York Times. By the time he arrived to his 53rd street law office, he was refreshed and informed.
The train also delivered him home at day’s end. We had good family friends who lived near the end of East Ferry Lane. He convinced The Alexanders to keep our rusting, old car — a grey Chevrolet station wagon — in the spur of their driveway outside their little used free standing garage.
That enabled him to putter back and forth from the house in our 1961 Bel Air Parkwood (with 178,000 miles on it) for the first and last portion of his commute.
The end of East Ferry Land also happens to be the Eastern end of the pedestrian walkway of the rail bridge over the Saugatuck River. The Western end opens onto the platform of Westport’s train station.
Everybody calls it, ‘The Railroad Bridge’.
Eight and a half years ago, my fiancée was hit by the train on that bridge. She was killed instantly; knocked out of her sneakers and into the river below.
The police found her left earring, and her cracked cell phone, on one of the bridge’s concrete stanchions.
But I digress.
Limericks accentuate joy. They emphasize humor. And, they radiate and support wit — and keep it flowing.
George Bernard Shaw, no less, championed the importance of the sexual nature of limericks. In dismay that the form had become less ribald as it gained more wide acceptance, he penned…
Shaw notwithstanding, Edward Lear and Ogden Nash stand perhaps, as the most famous Limerick writers of all time.
In Victorian England, Edward (it seems out of keeping with the genre to refer to a limerick writer by his last name) championed the form. Known primarily for his children’s poem/song The Owl and the Pussycat, he published two volumes of what become popularly known as ‘Nonsense Verse’.
He first called his limericks, “Lear-ics”, a play on his name and the term, “lyrics”. The Book of Nonsense, his 1846 first compendium, contains 109 limericks, not one of them bawdy. (see end of article for limerick sources)
Edward ended the first and last lines of his limericks with the same word, usually the place of origin of the described character. He eschewed ribaldry. Over his career, he crafted 212 limericks in all, and almost assuredly created a good deal more.
Ogden Nash had an advantage. He claimed since the age of six he had always thought in rhyme. On his way to developing into the quipster he would later become, he wrote streetcar ads for Barron Collier, the same company F. Scott Fitzgerald worked for.
Ogden created huge numbers of pithy and memorable short poems, not all of them limericks.
Through his live appearances, university lectures, and spots on radio and comedy shows, he popularized nonsense doggerel. Yet, his poems were marked by the distillation of wisdom.
As Dorothy Parker said of Oscar Wilde, Ogden enjoys such an illustrious reputation, many attribute witticisms and limericks to him that he didn’t write.
Limericks possess the unique power to introduce or approach almost any subject matter, making it instantly accessible and enjoyable.
My mother was a huge Ogden Nash fan. She was also a fan of brevity.
And, of feeling I didn’t measure up.
When I read my poems to her, she would vigorously twist her head back and forth, and declare they were “too long”, often adding that no one would read them.
Wise to this phenomenon, one day I offered to share with her a new Ogden Nash poem I’d found. I then proceeded to read my own creation, “I Don’t Know Where the Scissors Go!”
When I finished, she said,
“Ogden Nash is really very good!”
“Especially, when Ogden Nash is me!!!”
Fortified with all of the above, I set about creating my own limericks for the Wheels 2 U competition.
I came up with 22 — an alliterative number to publicize a service called, “Wheels 2 U!”
Here they are.
There you have it.
22 purposeful Limericks.
For a good cause.
And, here’s a bonus limerick I created as I worked on this piece.
If you’ve gotten this far, in the comments below please let me know which one you’d choose.
Or, create your own. And, send it to me.
Of course, my limericks might not win the competition. Still, I’ve engaged myself in a constructive way, and expanded as a result.
Hopefully, in reading this celebration of the art of the limerick, you have as well.
Book of Nonsense = 109 Limericks by Edward Lear
The Best Limericks of All Time = Great Article!!!
A Blog of Bosh / A compendium of limericks from 1903 = Wells, Carolyn. “Limericks.” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, vol. 55, no. 5, March 1903, pp. 532–5.
The Lure of the Limerick = William Baring Gould
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