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A limerick is a short, comical, and almost musical poem that often borders on the nonsensical or obscene. It was popularized in English by Edward Lear (and thus Limerick Day is celebrated on his birthday, May 12). Writing them takes a little practice at first, but before long you’ll be addicted to coming up with these witty, whimsical rhymes.
- Know the basic characteristics of a limerick.
- Rhyming pattern. A limerick has five lines; the first, second, and fifth rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth rhyme with each other.
- Number of syllables. The first, second and fifth lines should have eight or nine syllables, while the third and fourth lines should have five or six.
- Meter. A limerick has a certain “rhythm” created by how the syllables are stressed.
- Anapaestic meter – two short syllables are followed by a long (stressed) one (duh-duh-DUM, duh-duh-DUM). Here’s an example (note that the emphasis naturally falls on the italicized syllables): Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
- Amphibrachic meter – a long (stressed) syllable is sandwiched between two short ones (duh-DUM-duh, duh-DUM-duh). Example: There was a young lady of Wantage
- Lines can begin on two, one, or occasionally no unstressed beats. Some prefer to continue the rhythm across from one line to the next, especially when a sentence carries across lines, but this is not essential.
- Choose the ending of your first line, usually a geographical place. For instance, Pittsburgh. Note that the first syllable of Pittsburgh is stressed, resulting in one short syllable at the end of the line. Another example: New York. Note that the second syllable of New York is stressed.
- Think of lots of different things to rhyme with your first line ending. Let the story and punchline of your limerick be inspired by the rhymes you think of. You’ll appear funny, witty and clever this way. Example 1: Because Pittsburgh is stressed on the first syllable, you’ll have to rhyme with both syllables. First things that come to mind: kids lurk, zits work, bits jerk, hits perk, lit smirk, or maybe a different combination of these words. Example 2: Because New York is stressed on the second syllable, you only need to rhyme with that one. First things that come to mind: cork, pork, stork, fork. Write your own extensive list.
- Make associations with the rhyme words. Example 1: With words like kids and zits and private bits, you could go for a limerick about puberty. Example 2: Through the combination of cork, pork and fork, you could think about a limerick about a fancy dinner with lots of meat and wine. Go through the list you created and think up little stories of what could have happened and how your ideas could be related.
- Pick a story that appeals to you, and decide on who the person(s) is you introduce in line 1. What is important about him or her? Do you focus on their profession or social status, or on age, health or particular stage in his or her life? Example 1: For the Pittsburgh limerick, you could go for the word ‘adolescent’. Example 2: For the New York limerick, you might be thinking of the word ‘distinguished’ with something following that.
- Make the first line nice and fitting with the meter. Example 1: Adolescent is stressed on the 3rd syllable. Pittsburgh starts with a stressed syllable. This means we need one more long syllable at the start, and only have room for one short syllable between ‘adolescent’ and ‘Pittsburgh’. So we get: ‘A young adolescent from Pittsburgh’. Example 2: Distinguished is stressed on the second syllable. Combined with ‘from New York’, that leaves us only two syllables for in between, with the second one stressed. You could solve this, for instance, by borrowing from a foreign language: ‘The distinguished beau monde of New York’.
- Choose a situation or action in which your person starts off. This is the starting point of your story or joke. Use one of the rhyming words from list. Example 1: ‘A young adolescent from Pittsburgh, was just finding out how his bits work’. Example 2: ‘The distinguished beau monde of New York, was heavily dining on pork’. Note how the rhyme in line 2 seems to fit with the subject in line 1, while it actually is the other way around.
- Think of a ‘turn’ or ‘twist’ in your story, while considering rhyme words for the 3rd and 4th line, but save the punchline for your last line. Example 1: Of course the bits story can get messy, and because limericks often border on the obscene, you could have your hero’s hormones take the best of him (without making it too explicit). How about: ‘He dreamt every night, of a girl by his side’? Example 2: Thinking of cork and pork, maybe you notice how wine rhymes with swine. That would be a great follow-up.
- Go back to your list of rhyme words and find a nice one to wrap up the story with a punchline. This is the most difficult part. Don’t be put off if your first few limericks aren’t funny enough. Remember that it’s first of all a matter of taste, and second: everything takes practice. Example 1: ‘A young adolescent from Pittsburgh, was just finding out how his bits work. He dreamt every night, of a girl by his side, but his zits seemed to make all the kids smirk’. Example 2: ‘The distinguished beau monde of New York, was heavily dining on pork. They drank so much wine, that instead of the swine, many were chewing on cork.’
- Clap your hands when reciting your limericks aloud. It helps you find out the ‘feel’ of the meter, and check if it has the right flow.
- When you know your way around the basics, try experimenting with internal rhyme, alliteration or assonance to make your poem even more special.
- Use the alphabet massively, even if you don’t have it memorized and need to use a cheat sheet. This will allow you to quickly come up with unlimited number of rhymes–for example, take the word “Wiki” and run the “iki” part through the alphabet: aicki…bicki…. By the time you’ve mentally checked off all 26 letters, you’ll at LEAST have:…chickie…hickey…mickey…nicky…picky… tricky…. You get the point! There are also rhyming dictionaries in print and online that can help.
- If you’re stuck, try looking through a few limericks other people have written; each writer’s limericks have a special, individual “feel” to them. You never know which one may crack right through your writer’s block.
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