There once was a wee humble ditty

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Today being St. Patrick's Day, the least we can do is doff our derbies to that bit of Irish doggerel called the limerick.

From its name, you might think this five-line verse form originated in the town of Limerick, Ireland. But not necessarily. No one knows for sure where it came from - or exactly when, for that matter. But given the wee verse's naughty reputation, it seems only fitting that its ancestry be mysterious.

We do know that the limerick became popular as a result of Edward Lear's "A Book of Nonsense," published in 1846. But the first limericks go back much earlier, perhaps to a spirited gathering at some village pub.

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From my college days I recall a slumber party with about 50 other coeds. The highlight of the evening was our own version of "Little Liza Jane." Everyone sang the refrain, then individuals spontaneously belted out original couplets for verses. This went on for hours without a lull, and some of the shyest among us came forth with surprisingly witty contributions.

I think that's how the birth of the limerick must have been - the raucous product of ordinary people caught up in a game of wits.

Pub humor being what it is (or so I'm told), there had to be a butt to the joke - a public figure, maybe, or another culture. Keep in mind that in those days "another culture" could have been the folks in the next town, or even the next pub. Another ever-popular target, of course, is the opposite sex.

This example from Lear's book doesn't limit itself to a single swipe:

There was a young lady of Wilts,
Who walked up to Scotland on stilts;
When they said it is shocking
To show so much stocking,
She answered, "Then what about kilts?"

Limericks are fun to create. The form is specific enough to offer a challenge, but at the same time forgiving enough for anyone to succeed at it. Even the nursery rhyme, "Hickory, Dickory, Dock," could pass itself off as a limerick in most circles. In fact, you might think of the limerick as sort of a nursery rhyme for grownups.

Yet, children may be the limerick's biggest fans. Its simple yet clearly defined parameters make for an ideal vehicle with which to tap the creativity of a child - or of an adult with a closet literary bent.

At one point in the limerick's career came a move, thought to be of American origin, to incorporate an elaborate pun in the first and last lines, as in this effort of unknown origin:

Said the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher,
"The hen's a remarkable creature."
The hen, hearing that,
Laid an egg in his hat;
And thus did the hen reward Beecher.

This variation inspired me to commit several such puns myself, this one, "Made to Odor," among them:

They say the olfactory senses
Adjust to the foulest offenses;
But that's no solution
For all the pollution
That every ol' factory sen's us.

See how easy it is? Limerick writing is just challenging enough to be fun without being daunting. And the product is rewarding (although perhaps not on a par with having an egg laid in one's hat). That's probably why it's such a good equalizer, bringing out wittiness where we least suspect it.

But, alas, the limerick has fallen into disrepute. Somewhere along the line, its rakish side ran amok, and the form degenerated into what might be called a dirty ditty - sort of a rhyming graffito.

Would that we could drag that tarnished little poem from the gutter, hose it off, and restore it to a place of, if not honor, at least respectability. The limerick offers concise humor with a little bite and a big wink.

But, even cleaned up, the limerick must remain lowly, for its superficiality is plain for all to see. It lacks the subtlety to pass itself off as profound or symbolic; it is neither vague nor cryptic. And, lacking those qualities, it's not likely to attain great literary status. Nor should it.

Respectability, though, is another matter. This lighthearted jab in the ribs deserves credit for all the generations of ears it has tickled, for the sense of accomplishment it has provided for its many creators, and for its unabashed foolishness.

That's why once a year, on St. Patrick's Day, one must at least mention the limerick in the same breath with the word "poetry" before tilting at other windmills.

Or, if I may press the form into service as its own champion:

To that wee roguish poem ersatz,
A doff of our green derby hats.
Every doggerel, they say,
Must have its day,
And for the limerick that day is Saint Pat's.

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