The Limerick and the Haiku: Odd Bedfellows

Happy National Poetry Month [NaPoMo]. Usually one doesn’t partner up the ribald, irreverent Irish ex-pat with the introspective, nature-loving Japanese native, but there you go. Done. I like these two little forms and would like to shine a little light on each.

The limerick, named after a city in Ireland, is a particularly bawdy poem consisting of 5 lines with a very tight rhyme and rhythmic scheme that has made its way to many a schoolyard playground. An original:

There once was a lady from Kerry
who fancied the gents that were hairy.
With the strands from her teeth,
she wove a grand wreath
to remember the times that were merry.

This particular limerick, which I wrote years ago, shows not only the AABBA rhyme scheme, but also the common opening line pattern of There once was a [noun] from [place] that opens many of the ones I heard as a kid. One could also almost imply a subtle sexually suggestive nature to this verse, too. Which if it exists, would be true to form. The rhythm of the limerick is also important, leaning into the accented syllables of English. The “A” lines [1st, 2nd and 5th] not only rhyme, but have three feet of anapests [ta-ta-TUM], though they can often take on an amphibrachic sound [ta-TUM-ta]. The “B” lines have 2 feet of anapests (or amphibrachs). In this example, the first line is perfectly amphibrachic: there ONCE was / a LA-dy / from KER-ry. So, is the second line. The third line is perfectly anapestic: with the STRANDS / from her TEETH. But then again, limericks are hardly fodder for scholarly analysis so I’m moving on to the Haiku.

The haiku has been co-opted into English from Japanese tradition to much ruffling of feathers and chest-thumping. Some claim that this Japanese form can never be done justice in English due to the very different roots and history of the languages. I don’t hold as extreme a view, but I do think more needs to be present in anything called a haiku than 17 syllables spread over 3 lines in a 5-7-5 pattern. It is more than that. Common, but not definitive, is the subject of the haiku being nature or an observed object. The defining quality of the haiku, more so than even the 17 syllables, is the juxtaposition of two ideas, or objects, or moments and how they brush up against each other. This moment of tension often happens in the second line. It is this philosophical, or meditative moment of juxtaposition that is so often missing in haikus-that-are-not-really-haikus. Counting to 17 does not make a haiku, the juxtaposition of two elements that interact at their meeting may, even without three lines or 17 syllables.

To keep royalty costs down, I’ll insert more original examples. My poem “Verses on a Common Theme” consists of six verses which I do not call haikus, but they are modeled after the form. An excerpt:

Walls of wet ivy
ripple, eroding red brick
with nimble tendrils.

Yes, the line count and syllable count are here. It even looks at observable nature. The key element is where the word eroding darkens the poem and acknowledges a slow, destructive hidden force that is obscured by the first element. It can be an irony, or a twist of agency. Either way, this is the poetic element often overlooked that leads to sneering.

If you’ve read this far–please, feel free to post an original limerick or haiku in the comments below. Or meld the two and see what bawdy offspring you can come up with:

White, torn wifebeater
corner-tossed; man-scent airing
aromatically.

[Yes, I wrote that, too. In my poor 20s, I’d calligraphy that on a ribbed, tank undershirt [wifebeater] and give it to gay friends on their birthday to wear out to a club. Nothing says “fun and desperate” like a shirt begging you to rip it off.]

Next week I’ll tackle the sestina [my favorite] and the villanelle [here]. The week after that, I’ll resuscitate the sonnet and talk about rhyming. Enjoy your Month of Poetry.

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6 responses to “The Limerick and the Haiku: Odd Bedfellows

  1. Thank you for shedding light on the haiku for me! I have always been a skeptic as I have read so many that just made no sense to me at all -( not the content nor the art form) Now I understand why! As I am not a scholar of poetry, I had no idea how beautiful it could actually be if the ‘rule of juxtaposition’ is observed, like in the very beautiful haiku you wrote depicting erosion hidden by something as delicate as tendrils of ivy. I will certainly look at haiku differently now

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Destruction (Haiku, methinks) | My Grandfather was an Undertaker

  3. Pingback: Crime of Passion (An Invitation To Discuss Haiku) | My Grandfather was an Undertaker

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