Thursday, July 28, 2016

Limerick—Folk-Art or Poetry?

Review: The New Limerick compiled by G. Legman

Here are neatly turned odes of small span,
Much concerned with our bodily plan.
   And the intercorporeal
   Highly sensorial
Lovelife of woman and man.

The New Limerick, edited by G. Legman, is a delightful compendium of thousands of limericks, many of which had never been widely published. (I keep my copy in a bathroom, for those odd moments when a reading diversion is required.) Even the limericks everyone knows (There once was a girl from Nantucket…) are freshly enjoyable in this context.
A delighted, incredulous bride
Remarked to her groom at her side:
   I never could quite
   Believe til tonight
Our anatomies would coincide.

Legman's Introduction is a scholarly treatise that discusses the art and artistry of the limerick, and wonders why this is usually (though not exclusively) an English form. Although an Italian canto treating the lewder aspects of the lives of the saints is cited, it seems obvious to the editor that the terse character and abundant homonyms of English lend themselves to the limerick form.
There was a young lady from Byer
Whose hemlines got higher and higher.
   But the size of her thighs
   Provoked merely surprise,
And extinguished the flames of desire.

What makes this catalog of limericks even more impressive is that it is the second such volume. The first, The Limerick, included “only” 1,700 examples of the verse form, but generated such a stream of new examples that the editor was compelled to create this larger sequel.
There was a young girl with a bust
Which roused a French cavalier’s lust
   She was since heard to say,
   About midnight: “Touché!—
I didn’t quite parry that thrust.”

Isaac Asimov introduced his own book A Grossery of Limericks (one of several limerick collections written with John Ciardi) by saying, “Limericks come in many forms, dirty, lewd, obscene and otherwise. None of the limericks in this collection are otherwise.” Like the pun, the limerick relies on the surprise of the wry twist in the terminal line. And for many limericks, as for puns, the sincerest applause is a resounding groan from the audience.
A libidinous peasant named Jack
One time with a spider did shack.
   You may get oddball kids
   Sleeping with arachnids
But oh! those eight legs round your back!

There may also be a charm to the limerick beyond the rhythm and the rhyme. So many limericks build from a personal or geographical name, cleverly rhymed but never used again, that the editor contends this may be one of the draws of the craft. However, this does not explain my own personal favorite:
To barbarity man says adieu
As brilliant inventions accrue.
   To create wheel and lever
   Was really quite clever,
But divinely inspired was the screw.

And while a large majority of limericks insist on the youth of the main character, a substantial percentage rely equally on venerable age and experience:
A learnèd old justice of Trent
Defined what obscenity meant:
   He said, “Duck is not clean,
   But three-quarters obscene;
And fudge is foul forty percent.

Limericks in the U.S. became as common as filk songs for the science fiction aficionado (hence Asimov’s entry into the field). An entire category of science-fiction limericks refers to space opera topics, and widens even further the list of person- and place-names available to lampoon.
Flash Gordon, when looking for fun,
Poked Dale with his little space gun.
   Murmured she, “I’m not shy,
   But, quick, button your fly—
In comics, that just isn’t done!

There are 2750 limericks in this book, including the execrable (in the “Chamber of Horrors”), the unquotable (in “Buggery” and “Abuses of the Clergy"), and the simply over-the-top (in “Virginity”). I have had to work hard to select those that do not contain one of Carlin’s infamous Seven Words.

To read all the others, I highly recommend this book.