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To begin at the ending…

August 25th, 2016

MikeGHeadshot-blogThe limerick can be a nifty vehicle for delivering a single, amusing idea (pun, quirky or satirical observation, etc.).  Writing one is at least a good poetic exercise.  Though much disparaged, in many specific cases rightly so, it is a poem in microcosm, and needs many of the standard features of a more ‘serious’ piece.

Economy, vital in both poetry and humour, is doubly important here.  If you start with ‘there was a young lady from . . .’, that’s nearly 20% of your word count squandered already, with nothing original said.  Such open-ended openings often fizzle out in a bland or contrived finish.  Edward Lear’s pioneering pieces seem to suffer this fate, although some are redeemed by those lovely illustrations.

But to avoid committing too early, which can lead to impasses, I suggest first thinking up the jokey idea, then creating the last line as the punchline (and, ideally, the very last word as the ‘punchword’).  This will establish the main rhyme and so lead to endings for lines 1 & 2.  Next, lines 3 & 4 must rhyme with one another, and have the conventional rhythm.  But there are no other structural constraints on them – hence lots of freedom here to engineer a ‘set-up’ for line 5.

English is so rich in synonyms – even when we’ve satisfied the basic requirements of rhythm and rhyme there are often many choices remaining.  This allows us to squeeze in little bonuses of alliteration (see lines 1 & 2, and 3 & 4, in the example below), assonance (2 & 3), even internal rhyme (3).  These all reduce the information content, tightening the structure, lessening any feeling of arbitrariness.

Though it’s rarely required or expected I often add a title – written last, of course – in the same spirit you might add your name once you felt a piece was coherent and basically worthy.  This is also a sneaky way of priming the reader with some extra, unifying, information which couldn’t be shoehorned into the body of the piece itself.

The following cautionary example I wrote backwards, only to discover it had serendipitously addressed itself to a very good writer friend.

How Not To Write A Limerick – (for Lorna F.)

Don’t begin with a lady called Lorna,

or shenanigans set in a sauna;

what’s more, do steer clear

of the style of Ed Lear,

or you’ll paint yourself into a corner.

The author of this post is Mike Greenhough, who won joint second prize in this year’s Limerick Competition and was overall winner in the 2015 competition.



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