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The Best Light Verse of All Time

Which poets wrote the best light verse? Humorous poetry goes by a number of different names: light verse, light poetry, humorous verse, nonsense verse, puns, doggerel, limericks, clerihews, double dactyls, spoonerisms, epigrams, McWhirtles, and so on. I will give examples of the genre and various sub-genres, citing some of the very best humorous poets, including Hilaire Belloc, Lord Byron, Lewis Carroll, Wendy Cope, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Mother Goose, Edward Lear, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Dr. Seuss, William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. And then, of course, there is the greatest of all humorists, Anonymous ...

compiled by Michael R. Burch

Light Verse aka Humorous Verse

Let us have wine and woman, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda water the day after.
—George Gordon, Lord Byron

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee,
and I'll forgive Thy great big one on me.
—Robert Frost

The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks
Which practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle
In such a fix to be so fertile.
—Ogden Nash

The ant has made himself illustrious
Through constant industry industrious.
So what? Would you be calm and placid
If you were full of formic acid?
—Ogden Nash

Is there any reward?
I'm beginning to doubt it.
I am broken and bored,
Is there any reward
Reassure me, Good Lord,
And inform me about it.
Is there any reward?
I'm beginning to doubt it.
Hilaire Belloc

Spoonerisms

A spoonerism may be defined as an unintentional (or intentional) slip of the tongue: "whore to culture" for horticulture, "belly jeans" for "jelly beans," etc. The spoonerism is also known as the Morrowsky, after a Polish count with a speech impediment. Yogi Berra, the hall-of-fame New York Yankees catcher, is perhaps the most famous modern person known for such malaprops (or is that an example, with the proper word being "malapropism"?).

I'd rather have a bottle in front of me
than a frontal lobotomy.
—Dorothy Parker

You can lead a whore to culture,
but you can't make her think.
—Dorothy Parker

The second spoonerism above was allegedly provided after Dorothy Parker was asked to use the word "horticulture" during a game of Can-You-Give-Me-A-Sentence. It is a pun on the old saw, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." (You can find other puns below.)

Nonsense Verse

Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, "Mother Goose" and Dr. Seuss are among the best-known penners of nonsense verse. Nonsense verse is often whimsical or fantastical (i.e., highly improbable).

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, "It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!"
Edward Lear

There was a young lady of station
"I love man" was her sole exclamation
But when men cried, "You flatter"
She replied, "Oh! no matter!
Isle of Man is the true explanation."
—Lewis Carroll

Hey diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle.
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
—Mother Goose

Puns

A pun is a play on words, in which words are often reversed, twisted around, or used "against the grain" or in unexpected ways.

Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.
Oscar Wilde
Work is the curse of the drinking classes.
Oscar Wilde
I have nothing to declare except my genius.
Oscar Wilde, to a customs officer
I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.
Oscar Wilde
Brevity is the soul of lingerie.—Dorothy Parker
If all the girls who attended Yale were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised.—Dorothy Parker
Ducking for apples—change one letter and it's the story of my life.—Dorothy Parker
You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.—Dorothy Parker

Doggerel

Doggerel is the opposite of uppity poetry. The best doggerel gives the appearance of being hackneyed, trite, childish or insipid, while making sharp, cutting points.

Willy Nilly
by Michael R. Burch

for the Demiurge aka Yahweh/Jehovah

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You made the stallion,
you made the filly,
and now they sleep
in the dark earth, stilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You forced them to run
all their days uphilly.
They ran till they dropped—
life’s a pickle, dilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
They say I should worship you!
Oh, really!
They say I should pray
so you’ll not act illy.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

What Would Santa Claus Say
by Michael R. Burch

What would Santa Claus say,
I wonder,
about Jesus returning
to kill and plunder?

For He’ll likely return
on Christmas day
to blow the bad
little boys away!

When He flashes like lightning
across the skies
and many a homosexual
dies,

when the harlots and heretics
are ripped asunder,
what will the Easter Bunny think,
I wonder?

Clerihews

The clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The first line is the name of the poem's subject, usually a famous person portrayed in an absurd light. The rhyme scheme is AABB. The line length and meter are irregular. In 1983, Games Magazine ran a contest titled "Do You Clerihew?" The winning entry was:

Did Descartes
Depart
With the thought
"Therefore I'm not"?

Rene Descartes is, of course, famous for the maxim: "I think, therefore I am."

Double Dactyls

The double dactyl is a verse form invented by Anthony Hecht and Paul Pascal in 1961. Like the limerick, it has a specific structure and is usually humorous. There must be two stanzas, each comprising three lines of dactylic dimeter followed by a line consisting of just a choriamb. The two stanzas must rhyme on their last lines. The first line of the first stanza is repetitive nonsense. The second line of the first stanza is the subject of the poem, a proper noun. The name must itself be double-dactylic. There is also a requirement for at least one line of the second stanza to be entirely one double dactyl word. Some purists still follow Hecht and Pascal's original rule that no single six-syllable word, once used in a double dactyl, should ever be knowingly used again.

Higgledy-piggledy
Emily Dickinson
Liked to use dashes
Instead of full stops.

Nowadays, faced with such
Idiosyncrasy,
Critics and editors
Send for the cops.
—Wendy Cope

Limericks

The most common form of the limerick is a stanza of five lines, with the first, second and fifth lines rhyming with each another and having three feet of three syllables each, while the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other, but are shorter, having only two feet of three syllables. The metrical "foot" employed is usually the anapest, (ta-ta-TUM), but limericks can also be amphibrachic (ta-TUM-ta).

There was a young lady named Bright
who traveled much faster than light.
She set out one day
in a relative way,
and came back the previous night.
—Anonymous

I find it interesting that one of the best revelations of the weirdness and zaniness of relativity can be found in a limerick. The limerick above inspired me to pen a rejoinder:

Einstein, the frizzy-haired,
claimed E equals MC squared;
thus mass decreases
as activity ceases ...
not my mass, my ass declared!
—Michael R. Burch

Edward Lear has been called the "father" and the "poet laureate" of the limerick because he helped popularize the form. To be frank, I believe other poets, particularly Ogden Nash, have penned better limericks, but I do admire this one, which has been attributed to Lear:

There was a young lady of Niger
who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
with the lady inside,
and the smile on the face of the tiger.
—attributed to Edward Lear and William Cosmo Monkhouse

Here's another of my all-time favorites, which illustrates how punning wordplay can enrich and enliven limericks:

A wonderful bird is the pelican;
His beak can hold more than his belican.
He can hold in his beak
Enough food for a week,
Though I’m damned if I know how the helican!
—Dixon Lanier Merritt (often incorrectly ascribed to Ogden Nash)

The limerick above reminds me of something Dorothy Parker once said about Oscar Wilde: that when she read an especially good epigram, she always assumed Wilde was the author. Ogden Nash holds a similar place of distinction in the pantheon of limerick writers. One thing Nash did wonderfully well was ignore the "rules" that often result in stiffly corseted formal poems. Nash's poems tend to be funny, irreverent, whimsical and "loosey-goosy." (Nash is to limericks as e. e. cummings is to sonnets.) Here are a few of Nash's best limericks:

There was a young belle of old Natchez
Whose garments were always in patchez.
When comments arose
On the state of her clothes,
She replied, "When Ah itchez, Ah scratchez."
—Ogden Nash

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the fly, "let us flee!"
"Let us fly!" said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
—Ogden Nash

There are more poems by Nash later on this page. If we give credit to Lear for popularizing the form, shouldn't we give even more credit to Nash for perfecting it? In any case, moving on, some of the best limericks are "naughty" poems written by the greatest of all poets, Anonymous:

There was a young man from Savannah
Who died in a curious manner:
He whittled a hole
In a telephone pole
And electrified his banana.
—Anonymous

There was a young gal name of Sally
Who loved an occasional dally.
She sat on the lap
Of a well-endowed chap
Crying, "Gee, Dick, you're right up my alley!"
—Anonymous (I touched this one up slightly)

A pious young lady of Chichester
Made all the pale saints in their niches stir.
And each morning at matin
Her breast in pink satin
Made the bishop of Chichester's breeches stir.
—Anonymous (I also touched this one up slightly)

As one critic put it, the limerick "is the vehicle of cultivated, unrepressed sexual humor in the English language." But while some experts claim that the only "real" limerick is an obscene or bawdy one, the form really took off initially, in terms of popularity, as a vehicle for nonsense verse and children's poems, such as the Mother Goose nursery rhymes:

Hickory dickory dock,
the mouse ran up the clock;
the clock struck one
and down he run;
hickory dickory dock.
—Mother Goose

There once was a leopardess, Dot,
who indignantly answered: "I’ll not!
The gents are impressed
with the way that I’m dressed.
I wouldn’t change even one spot."
—Michael R. Burch

The origin of the name "limerick" for this poetic form is still being debated. The term was first officially documented in England in 1898, in the New English Dictionary, but the form itself is much older. The name is generally considered to be a reference to the city or county of Limerick, Ireland, and may derive from a parlor game that included a refrain such as "Will [or won't] you come (up) to Limerick?" The earliest known use of the name "limerick" for a short, humorous lyric is an 1880 reference in a New Brunswick newspaper to a tune apparently well-known at the time, "Won’t you come to Limerick?" That article included this verse:

There was a young rustic named Mallory,
who drew but a very small salary.
When he went to the show,
his purse made him go
to a seat in the uppermost gallery.

The earliest published American limerick appeared in 1902 in the Princeton Tiger:

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

Related "sequels" were soon published. Of these, two of the most famous appeared, respectively, in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Press:

But he followed the pair to Pawtucket,
The man and the girl with the bucket;
And he said to the man,
He was welcome to Nan,
But as for the bucket, Pawtucket.

Then the pair followed Pa to Manhasset,
Where he still held the cash as an asset;
But Nan and the man
Stole the money and ran,
And as for the bucket, Manhasset.

There continue to be modern sequels, including this bawdy one of mine:

There was a lewd whore from Nantucket
who intended to pee in a bucket;
but being a man
she missed the damn can
and her rattled john fled crying, "Fuck it!"
—Variation on a classic limerick by Michael R. Burch

There once was a Baptist named Mel
who condemned all non-Christians to hell.
When he stood before God
he felt like a clod
to discover His Love couldn’t fail!
—Michael R. Burch

Related pages: Best Poem of All Time, Best Poets, Best Lyric Poetry, Best Free Verse, Best Love Poetry, Best Romantic Poetry, Best Sad/Dark Poetry, Best Religious Poetry, Best Spiritual Poetry, Best Heretical Poetry, Best Poetry Translations, Best Old English Poetry, Best Epigrams, Best Fall/Autumn Poetry, Best Haiku, Best Hiroshima Poetry, Best Holocaust Poetry, Best Anti-War Poetry, Best of the Masters, The Most Beautiful Poems in the English Language, Best Poems for Kids, Best Nonsense Verse, Best Rondels and Roundels, Best American Poetry

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