The limerick is perhaps the only form of poetry known mostly for its racy content. Limericks are traditionally about taboo or adult subjects, written with a witty delivery of the last line. Of course, the subject matter doesn't have to be racy; there are many limericks written for children that are about innocuous subjects. The only real requirement of a limerick is a specific structure.
- A limerick contains only five lines. Whatever the subject matter, it cannot be any longer or shorter than five lines.
- The rhyme pattern of a limerick is very specific. When looking at the last word of each line, certain ones must rhyme with other lines. If you give the first two lines a letter (A) and the second two lines another letter (B), you start to see the rhyme scheme. The first two lines rhyme, the second two lines rhyme, and the last line rhymes with the first two. This makes the rhyme scheme AABBA. When planning out your limerick, it may help to actually write these letters at the end of each line to help you remember which lines should rhyme. In this limerick written by Edward Lear in 1846, notice the A-rhyme that is demonstrated by "coast," "post" and "toast." Then observe the B-rhyme demonstrated by "cold" and "hold."
There was an Old Man of the Coast
Who placidly sat on a post;
But when it was cold,
He relinquished his hold,
And called for some hot buttered toast.
- The rhythm pattern of a limerick is equally set in stone. The number of beats in each line is what is counted, rather than the number of syllables. The "beats" are the stressed syllables in the line. The first, second and fifth lines all must have three beats in each line. The third and fourth lines must have two beats in each line. Notice that the rhythm change follows the rhyming change, making it a little easier to remember which lines are different. In the Lear limerick, the fourth line contains two beats -- He reLINquished his HOLD. The last line contains three beats -- And he CALLED for some HOT buttered TOAST.
- The last line should be like a joke's punch line. The last line of the limerick should be a small surprise of some type -- something that the reader will not quite expect. Surprise is a way to get some humor across in a limerick. Give an unexpected ending and the poems reads like a joke.
- Come up with a subject matter that is appropriate. When people read limericks written for an adult audience, they expect them to be a bit on the racy side. If the limerick is written for adults and is about beautiful trees, there is bound to be some disappointment. Conversely, if the limerick is written for children or families, it should be clean and innocent, but still have a humorous angle. Irreverence and whimsy are the key ingredients of a limerick.
Limericks are short and quite difficult to write because of their rigid structure. But a well-written limerick with a clever ending is a priceless thing to be shared with an audience.