I think we all know where this is going, but, does anyone know who wrote it? Is there even a concept of author that could be reasonably applied to such doggerel? The question doesn’t usually enter our minds. Why? Is it simply because such poems deal with low themes? Is it because these little poems act more like jokes than poetry? I’m sure our lack of concern about the authorship of such pieces is motivated by both issues, but, that does not mean authorship of such poems is an uncomplicated matter. If we were to think about the author of such poems, we would no doubt think first and foremost about a tradition. But, is that the same as an author? Of course it’s not. But, is it a full blown oral poetic system with all that entails? I don’t think that’s the case either. My sense is that the limerick is a primarily literary form (in its conception), but one that often relies on performance (or, at the very the least, the idea of performance) in order to realize fully its effect. So, how do we gauge the effectiveness of such a poem? Where does its authority lie, if not primarily in an author and/or tradition? In his essay on the author function, Foucault (I know, I am a post-modern dinosaur) says:
“Although, since the eighteenth century, the author has played the role of the regulator of the fictive, a role quite characteristic of our era of industrial and bourgeois society, of individualism and private property, still, given the historical modifications that are taking place, it does not seem necessary that the author function remain constant in form, complexity, and even existence. I think that, as our society changes, at the very moment when it is in the process of changing, the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint—one which will no longer be the author, but which will have to be determined, or, perhaps, experienced.”
Foucault here, presciently to my mind, characterizes some of the new modes of authorship that the internet has engendered, from collaborative wiki projects, to twitter feeds that offer the latest news on important world events to this very blog (ideally). But, that is not why I quote him here—I’m more impressed with the applicability of this definition to the limerick (and not just that, as we will see), in which a collectivity, rather than an individual author is the system of constraint, the limiting and legitimizing force that guarantees the authority of each discreet instance of the genre.
It is this idea of a collectivity, the idea that no single representative of the genre has its full force without reference to the rest of the notional corpus, that seems interesting with regard to the limerick. In other words, “There once was a man from Nantucket . . .” can’t be fully effective unless we realize the multiplicity of possibilities entailed in its utterance. I see something similar in archaic epigram, another genre that has no author per se, yet certainly is possessed of authority. Similar to the limerick, the effectiveness of a given epigram is tied to the relationship each performance (in the archaic period, I would argue that there is no poetic effect in reading silently) has to all the others, many examples of which are immediately before the eyes (and only potentially, the ears) of an Archaic audience. In other words, each tode sêma of each epigram creates its authority in performance by emerging from a multivocal collectivity into an individual particularity. Each such performance is governed by a fairly rigorous set of formal constraints, but, and this is significant, not limited to a highly trained and skilled class of performers. It is the very multiplicity of the collectivity that fuels the poetics of archaic epigram . . . and the limerick, too.
So, what of this man from Nantucket? Does he have need of a bucket? Is he traveling in . . . Thailand? Did he fight at the Alamo? Is he a movie star promoting a film in Honolulu? Who knows, but, whoever he is, I’m sure something unexpected, perhaps even lewd, will befall this hapless (or wily) Mainer.