‘There was a young fellow from Ankara…’ How the limerick is the sonnet of our time

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Watson, I have it! The limerick is the new sonnet. Bear with me here, through an inexorably persuasive chain of deductions I will prove to you the veracity of this unlikely seeming result. Ready? Here we go.

How does this trivial little form do everything the sonnet has done since Elizabethan times? It’s got a lot to do with a gradual change in attitude across contemporary culture. We are shifting from longer to shorter formats; Paradise Lost to Gogglebox, Dickens to HBO. Shorter formats are so much more instantly digestible. Even the mammoth Game of Thrones has so many different plot lines woven into a single episode it is more like flicking through a dozen different channels for an hour than watching a unified, sustained story.

More than these different plotlines, the screen also dispenses with the tedium of ‘atemporal description’, cursing many a Victorian realist novel to the dusty top shelf of the library. We just don’t have the attention-span for Thomas Hardy anymore. Show, don’t tell, is how the acting advice goes. Mr Wormwood, in Matilda the Musical, sums it all up pretty neatly when he says:

‘Someone, on the telly, once told me, that a picture’s worth a thousand words. So telly, if you bother to take a look, is literally worth like, lots of books!

But, ‘if you bother to take a look’. Almost every aspect of our life is speeding up. This phenomenon has been variously described and understood, resonating with our personal experience of contemporary culture. How do we filter what is worth our attention and what’s not? Unfortunately, this usually means favouring the short and high-impact over the long and slow-burning. Tweets, news feeds and memes are all good examples of this tendency, while the average time of a cut in a Hollywood film has gone down from seven seconds to four.

This last reference to memes calls up another important feature of our contemporary culture: our addiction to humour. Jokes are constantly used to grab our attention or subtly to screen a controversial or subversive idea, repackaging it for easy consumption. Serious implications are lost in our laughter. However, this is an aside to the main point, which is that jokes are ubiquitous.

Take Instagram, the photo popularity contest masquerading as social media. Pictures clamour to be seen, appreciated and liked. Informative captions explain the picture, normally in less than a full sentence and often with the help of hashtags and emojis to express their instinctive and schematised emotions. The kind would call them poetry, strong emotion recollected in tranquillity. The not-so-kind would call them vacuous. Either way, their virtue lies in their simplicity.

Jokey captions have a similar function but go a step further. They usually work by somehow creating expectations in the reader and then disappointing, subverting or resolving them. The result is to make the viewer see the image from a different perspective and so, by adding an extra layer of complexity, to make it more interesting.

Since poetry is actually, in many ways, a form of social media, it becomes quite simple to see how this trend in ease of consumption, from turkey with all the trimmings to candy floss, from a Bacchic feast to a 14-course tasting menu, can easily be applied to it. If the novel was the dominant literary form in the 19th century and the snapchat story is our contemporary equivalent, then why should there not be a corresponding shift in the poetry of Milton’s time and the poetry of our own?

The reason that the limerick is such a brilliant successor to the sonnet is that it combines all the sonnet’s essential features — rhyme, the possibility of passionate and developed expression of an idea in a small unit, the possibility of combination into sequences — but condenses it even more, makes the content even easier for consumption. The strict rhyme scheme and metre make them even easier to understand because there isn’t much leeway for poetic distortions in the language. Their imagistic quality might even be compared to a written meme.

Even more than this, limericks add that essential feature of 21st century culture: humour. It’s such a flippant and trivial form that almost anything discussed in its brief five lines is not expected to be taken seriously. Take Boris Johnson’s famous one about President Erdogan. While he was making quite a serious political point about freedom of expression and the subversion of the rule of law, all the talk was about the made-up rhyme word ‘wankerer’. For us, and for limericks, being funny trumps being serious.

So, Watson, what do you think of my deductions? Has ‘Bright star, would I were tender as thou art’ really become ‘The thing we all love about Jenny’? Rhyming answers on the back of a postage stamp please.

Photograph: The Financial Times via Flickr

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