Limericks: The ultimate 21st-century medium?

The novel: Unsuited to the Instagram generation?

‘There was a young fellow from Ankara…’

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, in the modern day, 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. Particularly, there’s been a continuous, cross-media shift from longer to shorter formats; from Paradise Lost to episodes of Gogglebox, Dickens to HBO. Clearly, these shorter formats aren’t inherently any better, it’s just that they’re so much more instantly digestible. Even Game of Thrones, which seems like a bit of a mammoth effort to get all the way through, has so many different plotlines woven into it that watching a single episode is more like flicking through a dozen different channels for an hour than watching a unified, sustained story. More than these different plotlines, the show also dispenses with the tedium of atemporal description, the curse that has doomed 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. And by following the age-old acting advice of showing, not telling, films and television series can make the narrative progression clearer, the interplay and character development snappier and more involved. Mr Wormwood sums it up pretty neatly in Matilda the Musical 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!’ If you can convey in a sentence the same idea as in a paragraph, why wouldn’t you?

The key phrase in Wormwood’s theory is ‘if you bother to take a look’, reflecting the increasing effort needed to gain the 21st-century audience’s attention. The creative arts are following a broader societal trend: not only the screen and the written word, but almost every aspect of our lives are speeding up. This phenomenon has been variously described and understood and, I think, also resonates with our personal experience of contemporary culture. Everywhere we go people, are less willing to devote their precious time to anything which doesn’t seem, at first glance, to be immediately useful or entertaining. There are so many demands on us every day that, inevitably, we become very efficient at filtering what is worth our attention and what’s not. Unfortunately, this usually means favouring the short and high-impact in favour of the long and slow-burning. Social media 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.

While we’re on the subject of memes, we can consider another important feature of our contemporary culture, our addiction to humour. Jokes are constantly used to grab our attention or subtly 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, crucially, liked. Key to a picture’s success is the caption. These captions generally fall into two categories, banal and informative (not ironic) and knowing and witty (ironic). The latter are often, usually due to some embarrassingly weak bit of wordplay, unknowingly the victims of their own wit. 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 charitable might call them poetry, strong emotion recollected in tranquility. The not-so-kind would call them products of a vacuous and limited intellect. 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. Whatever the method, the result is, hopefully, 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. The anti-mainstream trend last summer for longer descriptions notwithstanding, both types of caption tend to be less than a line. With both, ease of comprehension is key.

What would sonnet master Keats make of your last Instagram caption?

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 fourteen 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. Their 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 I mentioned earlier, humour. It’s such a flippant and trivial form that almost anything discussed in its brief five lines is, almost by definition, not expected to be taken seriously. Take Boris Johnson’s famous ode to President Erdogan. While he was actually making quite a serious political point about freedom of expression and the subversion of the rule of law by the Turkish executive which was denying this freedom to its citizens, all that anyone I spoke to mentioned about it was the made-up rhyme word ‘wankerer’. For us, and for limericks, being funny trumps being serious.

An illustration from Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense, a famous source of limericks

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’? Answers on the back of a postage stamp please.

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