The Limerick: Anapestering Our Respectable Facades

by Doug Jackson

Ogden Nash excelled at them and they undergird the rollicking feel of W. S. Gilbert’s comic operas. But more serious poets took up the task: W. H. Auden wrote one about T. S. Eliot’s readers confusing him with the female Victorian novelist. Twain, Tennyson, and Thomas Moore turned them out. On a more contemporary note, Carl Castle of National Public Radio trots them out each week on the news quiz, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” Contrary to popular myth, Edward Lear did not invent them and they originated, not in their eponymous Irish city but ten miles or so south in the hamlet of Coomb.

The limerick is serious poetry’s embarrassing uncle who shows up at family funerals slightly gassed and wearing bright colors. He insists on making off-color jokes about the deceased and the worst of it is that all of us laugh. He’s five lines of anapestic bad taste who, in his indifference to decorum, forces us reveal that our own sophistication hardly runs deeper than our somber suits and mournful expressions. He punctures our pious pentameter every time!

Fellow-muse Rebekah Choat undertook to write a serious limerick. I want to go in another direction and attempt a funny limerick on a serious subject. The American sense of humor turns largely incongruity, or overlapping frames of reference, such as framing the sublime in the ridiculous. So here’s a little limerick about the serious business of Patristic Christian theology, specifically the debates on the Holy Trinity. History provides its own sanction to my project because, according to tradition, Saint Nicholas, amidst the heady and intellectual debates of the Council of Nicaea, opted for Muscular Christianity when he slugged the heretic Arius in the kisser for denying the Trinity.

Poor Arius faced Nicholas’s wrath
When he tried to make God do the math.
What confounds mathematicians
And staggers logicians
Dances deftly on poetry’s path.

*****

Doug Jackson is a preacher/professor/poet who after a quarter-century in the pastorate now teaches spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for the Logsdon Seminary program at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. His collection of poetry, Nothing There is Not More from Finishing Line Press, will be published in February 2014 and is available for preorder now.

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