The Springbok and the Dik-Dik
by Amit Majmudar
There Was an Old Man with a Springbok,
by Anthony Madrid, illustrated by Mark Fletcher,
Prelude Books, 60 pp.
One of the fine ironies of English literature is that its foremost comic poet shares a name with its foremost tragic character. The not-quite-nonsense rhymes of the Fool in King Lear have some relation to the limericks of Lear; what was said on the stormy heath was not all said in prose, and Poor Tom’s original name was Edward.
Not all limericks are not-quite-nonsense, but the most limerickish ones are. As Anthony Madrid, author of a new collection of limericks illustrated by Mark Fletcher, says in a short essay on the form, in Poetry magazine:
Outside the laboratory, there are three types of limerick: the boneheaded ones, the witty ones, and the ones that are neither boneheaded nor witty—the sex stuff. For some reason, no one can like all three. There is an irresistible law of human personality that causes people to enjoy exactly one of the types and to scorn the others.
This rule is not a rule at all, of course, as Madrid’s insistence on its ironclad nature signals. I myself am proof it’s possible to like all three varieties. Open to all though I am, I believe the echt limerick, the Platonic Ideal of the limerick, is the boneheaded kind. That is why Edward Lear is the language’s best limerick-writer; his practice went straight to the nature of this form. The boneheaded limerick, in Lear’s hands or Madrid’s, is Pure Product.
What is happening in the boneheaded limerick? The ear perceives deliberation; the mind perceives serendipity. It is play, but highly structured play—play not constrained but generated by a defined set of rules. For centuries, this was the basis, not just of light verse, but of poetry itself, across cultures. (Madrid’s other form of choice is the multi-rhymed ghazal, which has its origins in pre-Islamic Arabia.) Today this attitude toward writing poetry is called “formal verse” and is perceived as a set of ancient and perversely welcomed chains on the Free Spirit of True Poetic Feeling. About five journals in the whole English-speaking world will publish it.
Fortunately, Madrid has found a publisher—and not just a publisher, an illustrator—for his Lear-esque limericks. He honors himself by honoring the form; there are no “American limericks” here, which is a good thing, since “American” prefixed by a poet to any form—as in, “These aren’t conventional sonnets, they’re American sonnets,” or “Can I email you a pdf of my book of American ghazals?”—means that the form thus Americanized won’t rhyme, won’t scan, and will have too many lines. These are limericks that sound like limericks, allowing them to do what limericks do best, which is sound like limericks.
The sound isn’t a substitute for sense, but the sound creates the illusion of sense.
We saw a few folks from Chicago,
But all that they brought was a taco.
So they went to get pizza, and lost all their seats at the
I chose that one to point out one interesting feature, which is that all of its rhymes are off-rhymes, but it works just as well on the tongue as a limerick with hard rhymes: Nicely done, and done infrequently enough in the book not to be overdone.
Madrid has composed these as moments musicaux, complete with the occasional stress mark to guide their reciter. Sometimes he repeats a rhyme (on the second and fourth, or first and fourth lines), but in many instances, he strings together three thoroughly outlandish rhymes on a gossamer thread of invention, like Shiloh/rhino/wino, or Lemont/want/Kant, and let’s not forget the internal rhymes of the third line.
There was a young lady from Ottawa,
Who thought she was Anna Akhmatova.
Her relentless hauteur made her friends insecure,
But she didn’t care what people thoughtovva.
Madrid also understands that the limerick’s peculiar effects are determined by rhyme but heightened by alliteration and assonance. Alliteration, in particular, consummates the musical elements at play. Watch the deft, clinching deployment of vexing in this one:
There was a young man from the Bronx,
Who loved drawing and redrawing ankhs.
When they asked for specifics, he spoke hieroglyphics,
That vexing young man from the Bronx.
The limerick shows us why comic narratives are so often episodic (Don Quixote, Rabelais, Catch-22) or digressive (Don Juan, Tristram Shandy). You can’t be funny or amusing and simultaneously drive some kind of point, either narrative or sociopolitical; this is why moralists so rarely have a sense of humor. Candide, without its free-floating, episodic nature, would have collapsed into dullness. The limerick’s organizing vignette manages to be funny even when it’s not trying to be because it has nowhere it’s trying to go. Take a limerick and recast its narrative component in prose, and it ceases to amuse; for it amuses us by being an amuse-bouche. That story of the vexing young man from the Bronx is better than your average absurdist vignette— its meter and rhyme are advantages. Felicity keeps silliness from sounding trivial. Madrid’s limericks, like Lear’s, are aleatory but not arbitrary—that is, there’s whimsy in their making, but not in the system that governs their making.
As an aside, the only thing missing from this book is Madrid’s own 2015 essay introducing his limericks and Fletcher’s illustrations, Lear’s Shadow, which originally appeared in Poetry Magazine. This essay should have been included as an introduction or even an afterword, perhaps in an expanded form. Presumably he is saving it for a collection of essays—he has written several good ones for The Paris Review website—but it would have rounded out this book. That short essay’s analysis of the sound, appeal, and praxis of the limerick as “mouth toy” is more worthwhile than any armchair reflection of mine you’re reading here. Seek it out.
Mark Fletcher’s illustrations are a welcome supplement to the limericks. Limericks, like children’s verse, pair well with illustrations, which serve as ballast for the lightness of the verse. I am hardly qualified to judge visual art of any kind. The style reminds me of Edward Gorey’s work, but that may have to do with my own limited knowledge; that is, there may be some other antecedent or inspiration, obvious to people more familiar with the history of book illustration. What I can say is that Fletcher shows, in some of his pieces, a visual wit that supplements the poetry perfectly.
There was a balloonist from Madison,
Who refused, when we told him to jettison.
He got down in his basket, and said “If you ask it
Again, I will spit up my medicine.”
Fletcher fleshes out the vignette by including a small bird atop the hot-air balloon—with a lit stick of dynamite in its beak. One way of experiencing the illustrations is to look at each one first and imagine the corresponding limerick’s scenario. When I did this, Madrid’s invention never disappointed me. This speaks both to Madrid’s inventiveness and Fletcher’s; the illustrator has not done a one-to-one “translation” of the verse into visual language. There is a true collaboration at work here, and I encourage readers to pay attention to the Fletcher’s detail work, his little in-jokes with the reader. That bird above shows up again fifteen pages later, apropos of nothing, but welcome. The fuse has not shortened any, and its eyes are just as serenely, almost primly, shut.
In an age when poetry has trumpeted its sociopolitical transformative truth-to-power activist explosiveness, it’s nice to be reminded, through a book like this, just how big and various this art really is. Not every poem has to be a Molotov cocktail hurled at bigotry, or a testament of historical trauma written in the blood of your people. A poem can snap; it can crackle; it can even, with a little luck, pop. Ingenuity has a place in poetry, and wit, and pleasure, and lightness and delight. Poetry can crack a smile—and coax you to crack one, too.
About the Author:
Amit Majmudar is a novelist, poet, translator, essayist, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist. Majmudar’s latest books are Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018) and the mythological novel Sitayana (Penguin Random House India, 2019). A historical novel, Soar, is forthcoming in India from Penguin Random House in 2020, as well as a poetry collection in the United States, What He Did in Solitary (Knopf, 2020). His poetry has appeared in The Best of the Best American Poetry 25th Anniversary Edition, numerous Best American Poetry anthologies, as well as the Norton Introduction to Literature, The New Yorker, and Poetry; his prose has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2017, The Best American Essays 2018, and the New York Times. Winner of the Anne Halley Prize and the Pushcart Prize, he served as Ohio’s first Poet Laureate. He practices diagnostic and nuclear radiology full-time in Westerville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife, twin sons and daughter.