Rhyming, meter and limericks

Poetry is much more than prose with a bunch of carriage returns inserted.

I often get
In my role as editor
Of books, magazines, news sites
And various other publications,
By aspiring writers who
Hand in poems they
Wish me to publish.
But I can’t

The problem with most of these submissions is: I cannot distinguish them from regular, unimaginative prose — with a bunch of carriage returns inserted. That, for me in any case, is not “poetry”. I was brought up on Byron, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Poe, and Carroll — I can recite the entire Raven and every poem in Alice, also about 25% of Goethe’s Faust. So I cringe at a “poem” like the following, which I reproduce with apologies to the author, who will remain unnamed.

pieces dance
in changing patterns;
drama, intrigue and mystery
for those who know

Now I know that there are a lot of people out there who will consider me hopelessly outdated; but for me poetry has always included linguistic virtuosity, usually demonstrated with rhyme and meter. Take the simple limerick, which has the familiar five-line AABBA scheme. I have been sent a number of these over the years, but always cringe at the way the authors tend to ignore meter (it has to be Da-dam di-di-dam di-di-dam…)

The limerick was invented (or at least popularized) by nonsense specialist Edward Lear, who wrote a large number of them, like this one:

Lear’s limericks were not that great — he was a pioneer, experimenting with a new art form. He had the lazy last line, which was basically a repetition of the first. It led comedian John Clarke to parody him thus:

There was an old man with a beard,
A funny old man with a beard
He had a big beard
A great big old beard
That amusing old man with a beard.

One limerick I really treasure was penned by W.S. Gilbert, the English dramatist, librettist and poet who, together with composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, produced some of the best comic operas in the English language — H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, The Gondoliers, The Mikado, just to name a few of my favourites. Gilbert could rhyme like no other:

Our great Mikado, virtuous man,
When he to rule our land began,
Resolved to try
A plan whereby
Young men might best be steadied.
So he decreed, in words succinct,
That all who flirted, leered or winked
(Unless connubially linked),
Should forthwith be beheaded!

Or the most famous song from The Pirates of Penzance.:

I am the very model of a modern Major-General
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical

Listen to this incredibly well-crafted song here (with lyrics!), and don’t miss the equally virtuoso version written by Tom Lehrer, who simply lists all the elements of the periodic table:

The above is a wonderful and very rare recording from Copenhagen in 1967 — if you don’t believe he got every single element and every syllable right, listen to this version with scrolling lyrics, or this one with the elements lighting up on the periodic table.

But I must get back to Gilbert and his rhyming skills. He wrote the following (now famous) limerick parody, which deliberately sabotages the scheme:

There was an old man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp,
When asked, “Does it hurt?”
He replied, “No, it doesn’t,
I’m so glad that it wasn’t a hornet.

Another one that makes fun of the meter is this:

There was a young bard of Japan
Whose poetry never would scan.
When they said it was so,
He replied: ‘Yes, I know,
But I always try to get as many words into the last line as I possibly can.’

Which reminds me, again, of Tom Lehrer, who poked fun at verbal ineptitude in the Folk Song Army. The part I am alluding to (1m 23s into the video) goes like this:

The tune don’t have to be clever,
And it don’t matter if you put a coupla extra syllables into a line.
It sounds more ethnic if it ain’t good English,
And it don’t even gotta rhyme — excuse me, rhyne.

Limericks have become cleverer and cleverer — I could fill many pages with excellent material. But then again, why did god give us Google? So here is a final limerick, one for you to solve, written by the recreational mathematics expert Leigh Mercer:

Yes, it’s a limerick alright. Since you are never going to guess it, I will give you the solution. You read it as follows:

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.

This is not the last time you will read about poetry in my blog — I still have plenty of material up my sleeve. Like the following article: Verse and meter — and the raven.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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