Category Archives: limericks

Review: Max Gutmann, ‘Light and Comic Verse’

Quirkily-workily
Jorge Bergolio,
On a career path with
Quite a steep slope,

Unostentatiously
Worked as a janitor,
Then as a bouncer, and
Then as the Pope.

This elegant double dactyl on the life of Pope Francis is representative of ‘The Hearthside Treasury of Light and Comic Verse’: interesting, witty, technically perfect. The poems include limericks, clerihews, varieties of ballades, and are purported to be written by a variety of poets, several of whom are claimed to be the first-ever winner of the prestigious Blackfrier Prize for Poetry. The book’s veneer of being ‘edited by Max Gutmann’ is worn even thinner with the bio of his least likely poet, Ed Winters… “A devotee of Hemingway, Hart Crane and Sylvia Plath, Winters shot himself in the mouth while diving from a ship with his head in an oven.”

The book includes two pages of riddles in rhyme, of enjoyable difficulty: half were guessable for me, half not. There is also a full-length Poe parody (‘Quoth the Parrot: “Cracker. Now!”); scenes from The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and Titus Andronicus rewritten by W.S. Gilbert; outrage at the Trump presidency, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and the US Supreme Court’s appalling excuse for subverting the 2000 Presidential election; a poem appropriately written in the form of a dozen eggs; and various puns, off-colour jokes and random surprises. Many of the poems have previously appeared in Light poetry magazine, many others in a range from Asses of Parnassus to the Washington Post.

As for “The Hearthside Treasury” part of the book’s title… though there was (or is) a Hearthside Press, active from the mid-1950s to mid-70s; and an unrelated Hearthside Books, active from the mid-70s to the present, sort of; this “Hearthside Treasury” appears unconnected to anything. Indeed, it’s not even available on Amazon. It doesn’t have an ISBN. All this is a pity, as it is as enjoyable a book of light and comic verse as you can find anywhere. If you want a copy – and if you enjoy comic verse you really ought to have one – you’re going to have to contact the author directly through his website (which mostly focuses on his plays) at maxgutmann.com

Opposing poems: Ronald Knox on Berkeleyism

There once was a man who said “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”

This limerick by the English priest and Sherlock Holmes fanatic Ronald Knox plays with the belief of Bishop George Berkeley that matter doesn’t exist – in the 18th century he wrote and preached that matter is only the product of mind and ideas, and needs to be observed in order to exist. Einstein, quantum physics and Schrodinger’s cat may lead us in that direction these days, but at the time it was radically new in the West. (In the East, ideas about the illusory nature of matter have been around for millennia.) It picked up the derisive name of “immaterialism“. And in his ‘Life of Samuel Johnson’, James Boswell recounts their hearing Berkeley preach:

“After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — ‘I refute it thus‘.”

Philosophically, Johnson’s response is considered a logical fallacy, now called the “appeal to the stone“.

Ronald Knox, the 20th century priest, limerick author and Sherlockian, is probably also the author of this limerick that opposes the first one:

Dear Sir,
Your astonishment’s odd.
I am always about in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
God

Perhaps we can think of the whole issue like this: if you play a strategy game like Civilization on the computer, you can only see part of the world at any one time. You move the cursor up, down or sideways, and you bring other parts of the world to the screen. What’s on the screen exists visually for you because that’s the part of the game world you can see; but the rest of the game world doesn’t exist visually – it exists as pure data in a program, and only materialises when you move the cursor to look at it. Berkeley suggests the physical world behaves similarly and, despite Samuel Johnson, this can’t be disproved. In that case, God would not cause the unobserved world to materialise – God would be the program, the organising principle for the data which would remain immaterial until observed…

Colour me Agnostic.

Photo: “Bishop Berkeley” by Infidelic is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Odd poem: Integral limerick by Betsy Devine and/or Joel E. Cohen, perhaps

Which should be read as:

Integral z-squared dz
from 1 to the cube root of 3
times the cosine
of three pi over 9
equals log of the cube root of ‘e’.

Note that this limerick relies for its rhyme on the American pronunciation of “z” as “zee”. For the “z = zed” half of the world, you can substitute in another letter such as “t”. What it all means is beyond me… however much I had of this in school is long forgotten. I’m much happier with the Mathematical limerick in an earlier blog post.

This limerick appears in a book by Devine and Cohen, ‘Absolute Zero Gravity‘, but it is not clear that any of the poems, jokes and puzzles collected in it actually originate with the authors, as they are all “collected” but unattributed.

Odd poem: Mathematical limerick by Leigh Mercer

That may not look like a limerick to you, but if you read correctly it can be!

A dozen, a gross, and a score
Plus three times the square root of four
Divided by seven
Plus five times eleven
Is nine squared and not a bit more.

Leigh Mercer was a very odd character. Born the son of a Church of England pastor in 1893, he said “I have been taught to regard myself as the fool of the family, a professional ne’er-do-well.” From 1910 to 1959 he held between 60 and 85 different jobs: in the engineering shops of 30 motor car companies including Rolls-Royce and Ford, as a nurse to a wealthy invalid, as a Post Office Savings Bank clerk, a pavement artist, a carnival sideshow assistant, an English tutor in Paris…

He loved puzzles and wordplay, especially palindromes. He is best known for creating “A man, a plan, a canal – Panama.” There is an 8-page biography of him here, including 100 palindromes. Leigh Mercer died in 1977.

Odd poem: prize-winning limerick by Boris Johnson

There was a young fellow from Ankara,

Who was a terrific wankerer.

Till he sowed his wild oats,

With the help of a goat,

But he didn’t even stop to thankera.

To make sense of this limerick, and why Boris Johnson wrote it, and the various reasons that it won a £1,000 prize, we have to poke around the politics of a few years ago. It started when a German video mildly mocked the authoritarian and repressive President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turkish government summoned the German ambassador to “explain and justify” the video. As Turkey had become extremely repressive to journalists, German TV comedian Jan Böhmermann then decided to show Erdoğan what free speech meant, by broadcasting a deliberately offensive poem.

On a set with a Turkish flag and portrait of Erdoğan, and with subtitles in Turkish, Böhmermann read his poem of twelve rhyming couplets. Here is a rough translation:

Defamatory Poem, by Jan Böhmermann

Stupid as fuck, cowardly and uptight,
Is Erdoğan, the president,
His gob smells of bad döner,
Even a pig’s fart smells better,
He’s the man who hits girls,
While wearing a rubber mask,
But goat-fucking he likes the best,
And having minorities repressed,

Kicking Kurds and beating Christians
While watching kiddie porn,
And even at night, instead of sleep,
It’s time for fellatio with a hundred sheep,

Yep, Erdoğan is definitely
The president with a tiny dick,
Every Turk will tell you all,
The stupid fool has wrinkly balls,
From Ankara to Istanbul,
They all know the man is gay,
Perverted, louse-infested, a zoophile,
Recep Fritzl Priklopil

Head as empty as his balls,
Of every gang-bang party he’s the star,
Till his cock burns when he has a piss,
That’s Recep Erdoğan, Turkish president.

Erdoğan filed complaints with German prosecutors in a bid to have the poem suppressed, and Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to investigate, which led to a court injunction, but also to the poem being read out in the German parliament.

Boris Johnson–at the time a backbench Conservative MP as well as former Mayor of London–was interviewed shortly after by The Spectator and a conservative Swiss paper, on immigration, Brexit and related issues. The subject of the poem came up. Johnson–one of whose great-grandfathers was Turkish–called it a scandal that a German court had issued an injunction against the poem being repeated. He said “If somebody wants to make a joke about the love that flowers between the Turkish president and a goat, he should be able to do so, in any European country, including Turkey.” As The Spectator had issued a £1,000 ‘President Erdogan Offensive Poetry’ challenge, Johnson was asked if he had entered. He said no, but when pressed, came up with his apparently spontaneous limerick.

Poetry judge Douglas Murray said the competition received thousands of entries, and he tweeted: “Can I remind entrants that you cannot just make up words. ‘Wankerer’ does indeed rhyme with Turkey’s capital. But it is not a word.” (For non-Brits: “wank” = masturbate, and “wanker” = stupid jerk.) However, Boris Johnson ended up with the £1,000 prize. Perhaps the fact that he is a former editor of The Spectator had something to do with it. (And technically, this is a very limerick.)

Odd poem: Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s limerick

There were few who thought him a starter,
Many who thought themselves smarter.
But he ended PM,
CH and OM,
an Earl and a Knight of the Garter.

Born into a middle-class family in 1883, Clement Attlee went to Oxford, became a barrister, but, after his volunteer work in London’s East End brought him into close contact with poverty, his political views shifted left and he gave up law and joined the Labour Party. Leader of the Labour Party from 1935 to 1955, including as Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951. His government “undertook the nationalisation of public utilities and major industries, and implemented wide-ranging social reforms, including the passing of the National Insurance Act 1946 and National Assistance Act, the foundation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948, and the enlargement of public subsidies for council house building. His government also reformed trade union legislation, working practices and children’s services; it created the National Parks system, passed the New Towns Act 1946 and established the town and country planning system.” – Wikipedia

Perhaps surprisingly he failed to see the value of the beginnings of the EU, preferring a stronger Atlantic alliance if possible. He is alleged to have said in a speech: “The Common Market. The so-called Common Market of six nations. Know them all well. Very recently this country spent a great deal of blood and treasure rescuing four of ’em from attacks by the other two.”

Now considered one of the UK’s greatest Prime Ministers, it is only fitting that his titles and honours include, as he boasts in his limerick, Prime Minister, Companion of Honour, Order of Merit, Earl Attlee, and Knight of the Garter.

Even Margaret Thatcher wrote of him: “Of Clement Attlee, however, I was an admirer. He was a serious man and a patriot. Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show. His was a genuinely radical and reforming government.”

Limerick: On a Hopeless Romantic


Like Jesus, she felt God-forsaken,
like Joan of Arc, wanted a stake in
     a life full of meaning,
     a life undemeaning—
like Jung, she was simply myth-taken.

This limerick was originally published in Light. As far as I remember, I didn’t have anyone in mind when writing it, it was done for the pure wordplay of the rhythm and rhyme, the repetition of the J-names in the long lines and the near-identical nature of the short lines, and of course the final pun.

Formal verse covers a lot of territory from limericks at one extreme to Paradise Lost at the other. Personally, I’ll take Lear over Milton any day.

Poem: “4 God Limericks”

God

Christian idea of God

God made Heaven, earth, plants, people, fleas
In six days, and then rested at ease;
Then He thought: “In those stones
“I’ll hide dinosaur bones!!”
(He was always a bit of a tease.)

God looked out a Heavenly portal
And what He saw made Him just chortle:
Some dude, on a cross,
Claiming he was the Boss!
For his hubris, God made him immortal.

God, blessed with what one must call humour,
Decided to start up a rumour
That Himself as a dove
Came to Mary with love
And begat an Immaculate Tumour.

God saw how Religion had deadened
And said to His host, “Armageddon’d
“Look good on this lot”
For His plans were all shot
And His angels teased Him till He reddened.

As with the previous post, “4 Guru Limericks”, this was first published in Ambit No. 196, Spring 2009. (Hence the English spelling.) Like the previous post on gurus Buddha, Jesus, Marx and Hitler, you shouldn’t expect anything serious from a limerick. But this flippancy can have a purpose: by tackling a serious subject in a completely unserious way, you can undermine preconceptions and unthinking assumptions, and suggest alternative views and approaches.

With this in mind, consider the idea that religious belief correlates negatively with analytical thinking, but positively with moral concern and empathy. Research into this was summarized in The Independent in 2016, after more complete reporting in the science journal PLOS ONE. Limericks by their iconoclastic nature appear to be low in moral concern and empathy – but often it is some form of moral concern that has driven the limerick’s creation, although its rudeness and fresh viewpoint tends to favour analytical thinking over empathy.

Limericks are the clowns, the fools, of the poetry world. The best of clowns and fools go into stealth mode to make useful observations.

Poem: “4 Guru Limericks”

A wealthy young prince called Gautama
Loathed worship of Krishna and Rama;
“It’s inside you,” he said
But, once he was dead,
He was worshipped…. That’s interesting karma!

A radical rabbi called Jesus
Assumed if he loved us he’d please us;
Though he loved Mary Magdalene,
John, and small children,
His power was no match for Caesar’s.

A second-rate father, Karl Marx
Let his kids die while writing remarks
On Struggle and Might
And the duty to fight
For state-owned newspapers and parks.

Hitler, son of a half-Jewish bastard
Dreamed of occult power; Europe, aghast, heard
Race-hate psychodrama;
His unending trauma
Destroyed the whole state that he’d mastered.

I love limericks. Their elegant form, rhythmic and rhyme-rich, and their frivolous and chatty anapestic feet, allow you to be rude and insulting without causing more offence than a well-dressed wit who has had one too many drinks at a party. And as such, they say things with very few words in a way that is very easy to remember.

As for gurus… well, it’s always good to be able to listen to people with more experience and wisdom than oneself, but that doesn’t necessarily make them correct in their analysis, infallible in their prescriptions and proscriptions. They’re still only human, full of half-aware dreams and unconscious bias. And if they have swarms of devotees and go off the rails, well, they really go off the rails.

Poem: Limerick: “Monomiscommunication”

This poem was published in Light, August 2017

MONOMISCOMMUNICATION

To be true to myself and quite clear
I whispered into my own ear;
I nodded, replied;
But, suspecting I lied,
I’m pretending I just didn’t hear.

About the use of form: pfft, it’s just a limerick. Limericks are designed with a bouncy, sassy meter and rhyme scheme. If ever there was a form that demonstrated how the use of rhyme and meter is part (and, I argue, an essential part) of the creation of the mood of the poem, it is the limerick. Perfect for puns, satire, rudeness and general frivolity, it is impossible to have any emotion of great seriousness when reading thoughts written in this form.

Therefore if you want to maximise the seriousness, for example, with which your verse is read, realise that an appropriate form is one of the requirements. And if you want your thoughts to be memorable word for word, then rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and assonance will be among the tools you use.