A limerick is a humorous poem with a bouncy beat. Although most frequently taught from upper elementary to middle school, the limerick is also a popular poetic form practiced by adults. Its rhythm, rhyme pattern and syllable count are readily identifiable, which makes it an easy to check for accuracy of style. However, its form isn't entirely rigid. Syllables, or beats, per line may vary depending on the needs of the poem's rhythm and story.
Limericks are defined by their meter, or beat, as well as their rhyming pattern and content. Meter is described based on units of unstressed and stressed syllables. To stress a syllable means to emphasize it. For example, many poets write in two-syllable metric units called iambs, which somewhat mimic natural speech by placing emphasis on the second syllable of each unit. However, limericks achieve their bounciness through anapestic meter. Similar to a polka, anapestic poems have a "one-two-THREE, one-two-THREE" rhythm. A limerick usually contains five lines. As to rhyme, it follows an AABBA pattern with the first, second and fifth lines rhyming and a couplet between at lines three and four. Depending on the age and purpose of the poet, the content may range from funny stories about friends or animals to bawdy jokes.
Meter and Rhythm
One way to understand the meter of a poem is to compare it to other poetic language that doesn't seem to match its style. For example, Shakespeare wrote in iambs, metric units that sound like "da DAH/ da DAH/ da DAH." Here is a line of regular speech with stresses placed in iambic meter: "neVER/ evER/ ask ME/aGAIN!"
In contrast, each anapestic unit -- called an anapest -- of a limerick sounds like "da da DAH." Here is the first line of a teacher's limerick, with third-syllable emphasis added: "a mosQUIT/ o was HEARD/ to comPLAIN." Basic limerick form usually contains three anapests in lines one, two and five along with two anapests each in lines three and four. If you like to count syllables, think of it as a 9-9-6-6-9 pattern. According to the Writer's Digest website, although limericks aren't rigid about number of syllables per line, a count of 8 to 10 is normal in the "A" lines with "B" lines generally containing 6 syllables.
History and Content
Limericks are named after the Northern Ireland city of Limerick and may have originated in the early 18th century as lewd yet funny poems created by Irish soldiers. A century later, they were popularized as children's poetry by the Edward Lear, an Englishman who enjoyed silly rhymes. Limericks are referred to as light verse, because of their playful beat, rhyme, content and habit of containing tongue twisters. For example, in the teacher's poem about the mosquito's woe, lines three through five say: "The cause of his sorrow/ was paradichloro-/ triphenyldichloroethane."
A Limerick Checklist
Checklists are good for more than grocery lists, auto maintenance and packing for travel. Some academics use them for analyzing poetry. They can also help you polish a poem so that all its elements work smoothly. The first item on a limerick self-checklist should concern evaluating whether your poem is humorous or even downright cheeky. Other check-off items would concern basic elements of the form, including: a five-line stanza, AABBA rhyme, syllable counts -- 8 to 10 for long lines and 6 for short ones -- and anapestic meter.