"Living with Limericks"

Most readers are familiar with the limerick, a form of light verse consisting of five lines, of which the first, second, and fifth lines rhyme and the shorter third and fourth lines rhyme with each other, AABBA in form. For example:

The reverend Henry Ward Beecher

Said, “The hen is an elegant creature.”

The hen, pleased at that,

Laid an egg in his hat,

And thus did the hen reward Beecher.

The limerick first appeared in England in the early 18th century, but it was 19th century writer Edward Lear who elevated it to widespread popularity.

In his most recent book author and onetime National Public Radio personality

Garrison Keillor offers a multitude of limericks he composed to illustrate vignettes about his personal and literary history.

“I am the old man of Anoka,” he writes, “and at the age of 77 I look back on a life that was affected by compulsive limericizing.”

Much of the verse included in the book was written to reflect upon minor milestones in his life, others written in honor of people, places, or historical events. Most of the limericks were dashed off rapidly and spontaneously.

Keillor considers himself something of a poet, and is especially enamored of the sonnet and its structure; eight lines of verse with a consistent form, followed by six lines, often of a different formulation or meter. When he writes a sonnet, which he does frequently, he is careful to observe the conventional formula. Not so when he composes a limerick; some of the limericks in the book break the mold and add multiple third and fourth lines. Some of these work, others don’t, but the reader can be thankful that they are a small minority of the manuscript.

Keillor acknowledges that his first introduction to the limerick was a 1953 book entitled “The Limerick” by Gershon Legman, a book he was astounded to find in his high school library. Most of the limericks in that book are not suitable for family consumption; Keillor quotes a few of the tamer ones. He admits that this introduction to the limerick form, and its frequent scatological emphasis has stayed with him all of his life. Indeed, one of his chapters is entitled “Don’t Forget Flatulence, Of Course.” Other chapters celebrate his travels, colleges at which he has been invited to speak, and authors, living and dead, whom he admires.

“Living with Limericks” is the kind of book a reader can pick up and lay down in small fits and starts. Although the book relates details of Keillor’s life that most of his followers are likely to be aware of, it is not the memoir he claims he is still working on. But it is a book that will be appreciated by the author’s devotees, and/or those who enjoy a good laugh.