Notes on a Thanksgiving Limerick

I am holding my first Thanksgiving dinner this year. This is because I am in a new country (New Zealand), and Thanksgiving dinners are thin on the ground. Just like at the first Thanksgiving, when it was the only one!

I thus have an amazing opportunity both to interpret the traditions as I see fit and to create new ones. For example, I suggested to a friend that it’s a tradition for each guest to bring a bottle of single malt whisky, and I mentioned Lagavulin by name.

There is one area where I am certain to make an improvement. Before the meal, there will be no insincere, inaccurately remembered grace, probably recited by an older family member whom all are afraid to contradict.

I thought a limerick read over the steaming plates, with hands held, would do, partly because I was told to do this, and partly because I think it is my destiny. The limerick I’ve written for the occasion goes like this:

There was an old woman of Hibbing
whose Thanksgiving turkey was living.
She didn’t know why,
but the bird wouldn’t die,
which confounded Thanksgiving in Hibbing.

(I hope you enjoyed that!) Now this little verse could have gone no further than the dining room, except that there is a point about the composition of this limerick that I want to discuss. It is a vital one. The keen student of the form will have noticed that I’ve largely respected the conventions of the limerick as it was crafted by Edward Lear. Here is an ordinary example from Lear:

There was an Old Lady of Chertsey,
Who made a remarkable curtsey;
She twirled round and round,
Till she sunk underground,
Which distressed all the people of Chertsey.

The key difference between a Lear limerick and many of the ones succeeding his can be found in the last line, which, in a Lear poem, as you have seen, is largely the same as the first line. A special show is made of repeating the place name invoked in the first line (as there is so often a Proper Noun place mentioned), rather than rhyming it with a different word. I will give a very strong example of a limerick that neither names a place on a map nor repeats rhyme words. Its author has been lost to time:

There was a young man from the city
who met what he thought was a kitty.
He gave it a pat
and said, ‘Nice little cat!’
They buried his clothes out of pity.

Anthony Madrid, our modern master of the limerick, has written on the Best American Poetry website of his irritation at Lear’s repeated last lines, which he describes as a ‘stumbling block’ that long stood in the way of his own appreciation of the poems. He characterises the echoing conclusion of these limericks as a moment of deflation: ‘everything in a limerick seems to promise a poppin’, jollygood, witty-as-hell last line—which is “brainlessly” withheld.’ He goes on. He claims that the ‘relentlessly pointless’ last lines channel the ‘mad energy’ of absurdist humour, but that ‘properly understood’ they are amazing and perverse.

I think that Madrid is right, but I also identify two other effects yielded from these repetitive last lines, like the one I used in my own limerick. The first is that the centre of wit-gravity is shifted from the last line to the short, tumbling third and fourth lines. A poem is not a joke. Not even a limerick is a joke, and thus I think there is a great wisdom in locating the critical turn of a limerick somewhere other than in the ‘punchline.’ I also think that, in general, when writing poems, it’s easy to think you can get away with murder in a poem if it has an amazing last line. But we all remember what came before, mate. There is no fooling in poetry. I like Lear’s limerick model because it reminds us of the importance of the penultimate.

The second effect is that, to use the language of music, the repetition of place names is a ritournelle, a refrain, or a motif. It is a homecoming. The starting-point made end-point. For Lear, the purpose of repeating rhyme words may have been to appeal to or comfort young readers. Or it may have been idle fun, expatriate games by a lonely Englishman in Italy. After all, some critics whose heads are full of acorns call Lear’s work ‘nonsense verse.’

In my own case, I find this ‘return to place’ in verse very attractive. Hibbing, the town mentioned in my poem, is nothing to me. I’ve never even been to Minnesota. But surely Thanksgiving is a time for returning home, even if it’s a home that is made up, and even if it’s only visited in words.

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