Two forms of poetry that succinctly display some of the most important elements of poetry are the Limerick and the haiku.
The rhyme scheme (as well as the brevity of each poem) means that the Limerick is one that is easy to remember. But the rhyme scheme also creates a sense of the comical or the absurd and though Lear intended these works for children we should not overlook how he exploited the ‘music’ of poetry to great effect, which meant that the primary experience of the Limerick is not the ‘meaning, but the sound the poem makes. The playfulness of the language in the Limerick also helps to make it acceptable to the inexperience of childhood.
Here are a couple of example:
There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin.
There was an Old Man of Apulia,
Whose conduct was very peculiar
He fed twenty sons,
Upon nothing but buns,
That whimsical Man of Apulia.
There is no sense to the narrative of the poem, yet the language remains very adult. Words such as ‘purchased’, instead of ‘bought’, or ‘whimsical’ instead of ‘funny’, which give rise to the idea that these poems were not intended for their meaning.
Lear was not the first to produce limericks. In the second decade of the 19th century we know that there were, at least, three volumes of ‘nonsense’ poems produced, which were all written as Limericks.
This one by an unknown author has a more contrived feeling to it than Lear’s:
There was an Old Woman of Surrey,
Who was morn noon and night, in a hurry,
Call'd her husband a Fool,
Drove her children to school;
The worrying Old Woman of Surrey.
The final line, for instance, bears no relation to the preceding four. There is no reason why the woman should be ‘worrying’ And though these are meant as nonsense, there is a need to make some sort of logic out of the final line. I think that this is why Lear’s work has lasted so long.
This one by Spike Milligan is a modern example:
Things that go 'bump' in the night
Should not really give one a fright.
It's the hole in each ear
That lets in the fear,
That, and the absence of light!
The ending of the final line is a rhyme rather than a repeat of the final word of the first. This repetition is another element of the Limerick that helps to make the poem more memorable. It rounds off the poem, whereas Milligan’s seems to wallow in its own cleverness. Also, whereas the traditional Limerick has a story to it, Milligan’s Limerick comes across as a knowing adult providing advice and, as such, the ‘nonsense’ element is absent.
Turning to another poetic form that has been more abused, The Haiku is a form from traditional Japanese poetics. It is probably the most abused form and definitely the most misunderstood in the West.
If you come across any description by western poetry sites or book, the first thing you will learn is that the haiku has three lines and a syllable count of 5 – 7 – 5. And in essence this is right. However it has led to some of the worst doggerel ever committed on paper by, not only amateurs, but professional poets.
So to set the record straight: In Asian countries, such as Japan, the emphasis on syllable sound is stretched rather than having a hard or soft sound to it as is the case with Latin/Teutonic/Anglo-Saxon languages.
This may not seem to make sense. But what the poet Matsuo Bashō is doing here is creating an image. Urami no Taki literally means “waterfall to be seen from the back”, he is playing with the idea of seeing one side of a thing (in this case a cuckoo) at once, but from the back of the waterfall he can see both sides.
The translation of this by Jane Reichhold is:
seen from behind the waterfall
What we now see is a short poem whereby each line has a purpose. The first line introduces the subject (the cuckoo), the second line describes an act (looking from behind the waterfall) and the third line states an outcome (both sides can be seen). It is this particular structure which defines the Haiku. It is irrelevant whether there are 2 lines or 3 and the syllable count is not the important aspect of Haiku. Once these three issues are addressed within a small poem then we are closest to the structure of the haiku.
Oriental poetry relies heavily on the creation of an image rather than the creation of a sound (there is no rhyming in Asian poetry unless it is accidental). The early imagists were inspired by the Oriental poetry. One of the most famous and successful Haikus written by a Western poet is In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound:
The apparition of these faces (1) in the crowd (2) ;
Petals on a wet, black bough (3).
We can see clearly that Pound sticks to the important structure of Haiku: he introduces the subject (1) in an act –being in a crowd (2) and an outcome which is how he sees the crowd (3). Pound goes much further than Bashō and other traditionalists in that he not only ‘paints’ an image but also makes demands on the reader’s imagination, by forcing us to understand and imagine a crowd, but also stretching the reader to see in that crowd what Pound sees.
I, arbitrarily, found this, unaccredited, ‘haiku’ on the UCLA International institute site:
As the wind does blow
Across the trees, I see the
Buds blooming in May
This is simply a statement. The inclusion of ‘does’ in the first line illustrates the desperation of the author to make the line into five syllables (I have no idea why it is laid out this way).
It is possible to write a Haiku and not realise it. The author of this piece was unaware of what he had created until it was pointed out to him.
This unploughed field with idle scarecrow (1), this idle tombstone(2).
this untaught mind (3)
Eric Radcliffe’s Haiku stretches the imagination and demands the reader works to make the Haiku work. At first glance this poem’s structure has less in common with Bashō’s than Ezra Pound’s poem, We have the subject of the scarecrow in a field, but the act is a transformation into an idle tombstone. Pound does the same thing by transforming the faces into a crowd. But that does not require as great a leap of the imagination as Eric’s poem demands. What is also clever in this is that each aspect of the poem suggests disarray.
Whereas each line of Bashō and Pound is a ‘leap’ one viewpoint to the next requiring a change of gear in our imagination, Eric’s poem ‘steps’ along as if we were walking up a littered alleyway, but it is a much more sophisticated piece as a result.