Getting your ’rick rolling: What we’re looking for in a Style Invitational limerick

June 3, 2012

The Style Invitational is renowned for all sorts of clever, irreverent humor and wordplay in its close to two decades’ worth of varied contests. Some of it is free-form, off the wall, while other contests state specific parameters in addition to the overarching requirement to Be Funny and Clever. Our limerick contests — like this week’s Limerixicon — belong to the latter group — hewing perfectly to a meter and rhyme scheme is one of the things that make limericks and other light verse Funny and Clever.

When we ask for a limerick, we want it to observe the following rules. Some of them are more rigid than some other folks’ standards; others are more lax. The rules sound technical, but really they’re just explaining the concepts of rhyme and meter that you’ve probably grasped since nursery school.

For the purposes of our contest, this is what a limerick is:

■It’s five lines long.

■The rhyme scheme is AABBA — that means Lines 1, 2 and 5 rhyme with one another, and Lines 3 and 4 rhyme with each other. (See “What a rhyme is” below.)

■Limericks traditionally are made up of anapests; an anapest is the three-beat rhythm “da-da-DAH.” As OEDILF puts it:

So the basic form is:

da da DAH / da da DAH / da da BING

da da DAH / da da DAH / da da DING

da da DAH / da da BAM

da da DAH / da da WHAM

da da DAH / da da DAH / da da PING

Here’s an example of an Invitational limerick that’s exactly in the form above, by Loser Stephen Gold of Glasgow, Scotland. I’ll boldface all the strong beats, the ones in all-caps above:

“I’ll be brief,” said the pelican. “We

Are so similar, me and BP;

Tarred and feathered. Those spills

Mean we both have huge bills.

High and dry, we’re completely at sea.”

■But they don’t have to start and finish with anapests! The Empress does not care if all the lines begin with the two weak beats of an anapest, and end with a strong beat. Instead, they can begin with one weak beat, or just come right in on the strong beat. Likewise, at the end of the line, you can add one or more weak beats as part of an extended rhyme (e.g., TALK-ing and WALK-ing; CRED-ible and ED-ible).

■In other words, what you absolutely must have, within each line, are strong beats separated by two weak beats.

In Lines 1, 2 and 5, that sounds like “HICK-or-y DICK-or-y DOCK.”

In Lines 3 and 4, that sounds like “DICK-or-y DOCK.”

But you certainly may have the extra weak beats at the beginning and ends of the lines — in fact, it’s usually better to have at least one weak beat (and even better, two) between the last strong beat of one line and the first strong beat of the next line; having two strong beats in a row is acceptable but sometimes clunky-sounding. Those two weak beats can be on the same line, or at the end of one and the beginning of the next. But Lines 1, 2 and 5 must all end with the same number of weak beats (if any), as must Lines 3 and 4.

Here’s an example from the Week 882 Invitational on the word “draconian,” by the great limerick writer Chris Doyle of Ponder, Tex., who has more than 1,400 blots of Invite ink and also is one of the best and most prolific contributors to OEDILF. Note that Chris’s Line 1 begins not with an anapest, but with just one weak beat (“The”), and that the extended rhyme at the ends of 1, 2 and 5 includes two weak syllables (“ni-an”) — followed by another weak beat at the beginning of the next line. Yet the limerick contains a very strong “hickory-dickory-dock” rhythm at its core (strong beats again are in bold):

The cuts at the famed Oregonian

Are shockingly deep and draconian.

The newspaper trade

Is kaput, I’m afraid.

What’s the future of news? The iPhonian.

●What a rhyme is: Lines 1, 2 and 5 of a limerick rhyme with one another, as do Lines 3 and 4. For the purposes of the Style Invitational, a rhyme is a “perfect” rhyme and not a “near” rhyme or a “sight” rhyme. A rhyme begins with the last stressed syllable of both words. “Trying” rhymes with “crying” because the last stressed syllables, in this case “try-” and “cry-,” rhyme and everything that follows is the same.

On the other hand, “finding” does not rhyme with “trying” or “crying,” because the stressed syllables — “find” and “try” — don’t rhyme. “Finding” rhymes with “binding,” because “find” rhymes with “bind.” And you can’t pretend that words are accented differently from how they really are, just because you’ve changed them in your head: You can’t decide to pronounce it “hemorRHOID” so it’ll rhyme with “my Droid.”

Remember that rhymes are determined by sound, not spelling. “Loser” rhymes with “cruiser” but not with “poser.” Tinkering with spelling for humorous effect is optional, as in “Dracula” and “vernacula,” as ace limerician Hugh Thirlway has done.

● Content: The Invitational is a humor contest, and so our limericks should be clever and funny in addition to, in the case of the Limerixicons, describing or illustrating the meaning of a word. The best of our limericks build to a clever ending, a punch line. Barbed “dark” satire with a bitter tone counts in our book as humor if it’s cleverly done, just as an angry political cartoon would.

● There are always exceptions: Humor sometimes involves the conspicuous breaking of rules for comic effect, and we’re not averse to that.. This is different, however, from limericks whose meter doesn’t quite scan, or whose rhyme is sort of close; almost-but-not-quite won’t wash in this contest: A limerick with flawed meter or rhyme would have to have unbelievably wonderful content to get Invitational ink; we typically run about 30 limericks from about 800 submissions.

For more information and helpful hints on writing limericks, peruse the even more extensive guidelines and discussion at OEDILF.com, a website devoted to creating limericks for every word in the dictionary; each summer the Invite puts on a contest in which we help out OEDILF — the Omniscient English Dictionary in Limerick Form — by asking for limericks based on words from one itsy-bitsy sliver of the alphabet.

As usual, the Empress may edit your limerick to improve it mechanically, or occasionally to frame the humor better; unfortunately, there’s no time for her to consult with the writer over every tweak, but she will e-mail you if she thinks you might disagree strongly with her editing. (See the Style Invitational Rules and Guidelines for the general procedures of the Invite, and be sure to look at the introduction of the contest itself.)

Results of Week 983 will be posted in The Washington Post on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012, and on washingtonpost.com Friday, Sept. 9 (possibly even on Sept. 8, if we have our anapests in gear). The contest entry deadline is Monday night (somewhere on Earth), Aug. 20. Please see the Style Invitational Rules and Guidelines before sending your entry.

Good luck!

Pat Myers

The Empress of the Style Invitational

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