Writing 201: Journey

On the menu today: Journeys, limericks, and alliteration.

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Your prompt: journey

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Today’s word prompt is journey. Write a poem about anything that word evokes for you, from the excitement of a trip you’re about to embark on, the mental progress you witnessed someone make, or the struggles, pleasures, and extreme emotions that travel can bring about.

Today’s form: limerick

The limerick at a glance:

  • Limericks are traditionally composed of five lines of verse.
  • The traditional rhyming scheme of a limerick is a a b b a — the first two lines rhyme, then the next two, and the final verse rhymes with the first couplet.

Named after the town in Ireland where it may or may not have been invented, the limerick is sometimes pushed to the margins of poetry, as it carries with it connotations of frivolity, light-hearted entertainment, and, well, lots of drinking.

You can tell a limerick from miles away:

It rarely takes a lot of time

To make the first two verses rhyme.

The third line is short.

The fourth? A mere snort.

You can sell limericks three for a dime.

But it’s precisely because of this baggage that limericks can actually be a fascinating form to dig into — their established rhyme pattern and sing-song rhythm can twist and turn in unexpected directions. Consider this one, from Tyler McCabe’s disturbing collection of Sad Limericks at The Toast:

All Therapy is Rehabilitative or Preventative

My therapist’s name is Jan
and she says I have planned a good plan:
One, work on my rages.
Two, finish these pages.
Three, don’t vandalize Karen’s van.

If you prefer free verse over rhymed poetry, your challenge is particularly interesting: can you write a five-line free-verse poem that’s clearly a limerick?

Write a limerick — or two or five, if you wish to create a narrative cycle — and inject this form with something personal and surprising. Break the pattern if you need to — and if it serves the purpose of your poem.

Today’s device: alliteration

So much of poetry’s power is about sound — even when it’s printed, we hear poetry as much as (if not more than) we read it — so it comes as no surprise that repeating the same sound makes for a powerful effect. Today’s device, alliteration, is all about using the same consonant multiple times in close proximity: think “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,” or “Take me down to the Paradise City where the grass is green and the girls are pretty” (thanks, Axl!).

Even if you don’t care much about meter, it’s helpful to know how to tell stressed and unstressed syllables apart. Here’s a user-friendly guide that might help you train your ear to detect stresses.

In more pedantic ages, alliteration was expected to occur on the stressed first syllable of words. You can follow that rule, of course, but feel free to loosen up if you wish: the sounds can show up anywhere as long as they’re close enough to each other to leave an aural imprint (the technical name for this, since I know you won’t sleep well tonight if I don’t tell you, is consonance).

There are no strict guidelines on how to use alliteration effectively, though one thing does come to mind. The power of the device is exponentially stronger if it amplifies or works alongside something else in the poem:

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers

That’s a lot of Ps! My ear is definitely pricked, but does it mean anything? Hard to say.

This whole place still smells like
Your cheap perfume

Whoa, Bon Jovi — double alliteration? Call me crazy, but doesn’t that repetitive S sound in the first line remind you of three quick nozzle presses on a bottle of (cheap!) perfume? And isn’t there palpable contempt in those two adjacent Ps in the second verse?

And now, it’s your turn to lull us, like lemmings, into the luxuriant, lush landscapes of your lyric limericks.

Photo by mark sebastian (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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