Wednesday, 14 September 2011

There Was An Old Writer of Limericks

by Philip Waddell

Humour can and does appear in many forms of poetry but one form of poem that must have been invented for humour and for which I have a very soft spot is the limerick. 

Here is an early example by the 19th century artist and poet Edward Lear who famously helped to popularise the form:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, 'It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!'

Whilst the form looks easy, writing an even mildly amusing limerick presents a sizeable challenge.

I’ll often start my attempt by picking a name (a person’s or a place’s) with which to end the first line of my limerick. Having thought of one I’ll try to think of as many words that rhyme with it as I can to see if any combination of the name with two of its rhymes suggests anything funny. Picking Hyde, for example, I came up with this:

Mad Hatter

A whacky teenager from Hyde
A hat with a bell on once tried.
‘Does this hat,’ he asked, ‘Mum,
Make me look sort of dumb?’
‘Of course not!’ she said, but she lied.

But as the limerick by Edward Lear shows your first line doesn’t have to end with a name. You can choose any word that has enough rhymes. I make a list of the rhymes as they occur to me and if the list begins to look long I’ll save thinking time – and maybe discover a few words I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of – by getting out my rhyming dictionary. Words ending in ean, een or ine gave a good long list that led me to this:

Fetching Appearance

There’s a shy insect, leggy and lean,
Hides in foliage not to be seen,
It pretends it’s a stick,
So convincing a trick
It’s been fetched by a dog on the green.

Sometimes I’ll think of a pun* that might make a good ending to a limerick:

Unhappy Customer

From Frankenstein’s clinic he barged
And shambled, grotesque and enlarged
Raging, ‘Man, am I mad
At the treatment I’ve had
And worse, now I’ve been overcharged!’

Sometimes I’ll just write something extremely silly:

The Monster Of Sponge

The monster of sponge has been cursed,
By a witch, with a terrible thirst –
Now it drinks and it drinks
And it drinks and it drinks
And it drinks till it thinks it will burst!

I’ll even make up a word to end a limerick:

Creative Writing

A writer of rhyming verse said,
When stuck for a rhyme go to bed,
If still stuck when you wake,
For your sanity’s sake,
Just make up the word that you ned!

Sometimes a limerick that amuses me will just pop into my head but mostly I find the finished poem will only come after lots of rewrites. If I have managed to write a limerick that I like I’ll next try to give it an appropriate and if possible, punning title. But that’s just me and the title of your limerick can be just its first line.

Finally, don’t be surprised if most of your limericks end up in the bin. Most of mine do. But the pleasure you’ll feel when you write one that makes you smile or better still giggle will, I promise, make all the effort worthwhile.

Hmmm… smile and worthwhile… I wonder…

*My dictionary defines a pun as a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word.


  1. Writing a limerick's quite tricky
    Especially if your a bit thicky
    I juggled some words
    A big portion of gourds
    And ended up with something quite sticky!

  2. Limericks are the most infectious form of poetry. No sooner has someone read a limerick than they seem to want to make one up themselves. This rarely happens with terza rima. Another thing about limericks is that everyone seems to think they're easy to write; yet very few people manage to make them scan properly.
    Nice little piece Phil - I particularly liked the last limerick.

  3. Yes definately harder than they look, my bin is cringing as I flex my pen.