Friday, January 27, 2017

`Vulgar, Evasive, and Trite'

In a review I filed this week I had to briefly define and dismiss the limerick, a form that is to poetry what paint-by-number is to Dutch still life. As with haiku, every hack thinks he can write one, and does. The problem is whimsy, or Lear’s Disease. The limericks of Edward Lear, who cranked them out like sausage, are uniformly without punchlines, and resemble baby talk. Rare is the poem that not only bores but also embarrasses readers, though Lear turned that feat into an industry. Kingsley Amis dismissed Lear’s gewgaws as “whimsical to the point of discomfort.”

But I was hasty and only later remembered a poet who wrote limericks that make readers laugh, perhaps the most daunting accomplishment in all of literature. I mean the late Robert Conquest, the historian who made liars and fools of Communism’s Western apologists in such books as The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purges of the 1930s (1968). Friend to Larkin and Amis, Conquest was also an accomplished poet who almost made limerick writing respectable. Here is a sampler, beginning with a limerick that nicely complements Conquest’s scholarly pursuits:

“There was an old Marxist called Lenin
Did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in,
That Grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.”

And then he condenses Shakespeare for the modern reader:

“Seven Ages: first puking and mewling
Then very pissed-off with your schooling
Then fucks, and then fights
Next judging chaps’ rights
Then sitting in slippers: then drooling.”

Also, an exercise in comparative philology:

“There was a young fellow called Shit,
A name he disliked quite a bit,
So he changed it to Shite,
A step in the right
Direction, one has to admit.”

And a variation on the preceding:

“A usage that’s seldom got right
Is when to say shit and when shite,
And many a chap
Will fall back on crap,
Which is vulgar, evasive, and trite."

1 comment:

Marly Youmans said...

Thanks for slumming so pleasantly!