Cantankerous Limericks
on Good English Prose

I love a complexly wrought sentence
With phrases and colons that went thence
__To make concise points
__With their well-dovetailed joints
And gave one no cause for repentance.

Your prose should be sharp as a razor
And cut through all crap like a laser.
__Opponents should fear it
__And avoid coming near it
As they would a red-hot glowing brazier.

A sentence is like a good knife
Honed sharp as a battlefield’s strife.
__It’s ready for slashing
__And stabbing and gashing
And putting an end to a life.

Your words should be strong as a wrench,
Like the genes of a good English wench:
__Celtic, Dane, Anglo-Sax,
__And fill all the cracks
With dollops of good Norman French.

And don’t forget Latin and Greek—
You need them to write and to speak.
__They’ve filled us with treasure
__Beyond any measure—
Without them we’d be rather weak.

Your paragraphs should show strict reason
And good syllogistic cohesion.
__Don’t spout exclamations
__And vague exhalations
Or anything else out of season.

Think thoughts in advance, not on paper!
Your mind—not your pen—is the shaper
__That puts words in order
__Like a prison house warder.
Don’t write while your brain’s in a vapor!

Be careful when dealing with clauses;
They ought to be linked with your pauses—
__If one of them dangles
__It utterly mangles
Your argument’s structural causes.

The pronouns are it, she, and he,
And they, them, and their, and then we.
__There’s I, me, my, mine,
__And thee, thou, and thine,
And his, hers, him, ours, and old ye.

Use these when you write and you speak—
Not nip, shay, or ze (for a geek)
__Or something else shitty
__Cooked up in committee
To placate some transgender freak.

The distinction between who and whom
Has reached its foreseeable doom.
__Few persons recall
__The difference at all—
It’s as dead as a corpse in the tomb.

The same holds for which and for that:
Their meanings have fallen down flat.
__They’re mixed and confused
__Like some mismatched old shoes,
And switchable, like lard and fat.

You do something once, and then twice
Again after that, and it’s thrice.
__It’s one of those crimes
__To say “Do it three times,”
Said by people as mindless as mice.

Pay attention to these little things;
You’ll need the rewards that this brings.
__Keep all in good order
__Like a well-guarded border
To make prose that commands as it sings.

Don’t EVER misspell any word—
Mistakes of that sort are absurd.
__It’s low-class and boorish
__And quite amateurish
And as vile as an unburied turd.

Be strict about clear definition.
Good prose always takes a position.
__Be sharp as a tack
__Or a whiplash’s crack
For that gets the reader’s submission.

Don’t dawdle or daydream or dither,
Or twist with a serpentine slither.
__A sentence that’s lazy
__Is fogged up and hazy
And proves that you only can blither.

You never should use the subjunctive
When making a point that’s injunctive.
__For prose that’s uncertain
__Will fail at convertin’
And render your reasons defunctive.

Subjunctives express what’s unreal.
Such tenses are simply ideal.
__To be noncommittal
__When the truth’s vague and brittle
Will never cement any deal.

Nevertheless they’re required
When subordinate verbs are desired.
__You need them with Lest
__And they can’t be suppressed
When if-clauses come to be sired.

Keep in mind when you start to compose:
What you write hits the eyes and the nose.
__Your ideas must link
__Or the whole thing will stink,
And the reader will drift off and doze.


Poet’s Note

I’ve written this small collection of limericks as an example of what is NOT fictive mimesis. In these small pieces there is no fantasized hyper-reality, but simply information and opinion in didactic-narrative form. The limericks simply give the reader points on writing good prose. Strictly speaking, such a composition is governed by DIEGESIS, which means “explanation, narrative, exposition, teaching.” Diegesis is the logical opposite of mimesis, although every poem uses both approaches in some way, shape, or form. While the great bulk of this poem is diegesis, small parts of it might be deemed fictive, such as the similes that are employed throughout.

Fictive mimesis is artificial and constructed; diegesis is explanatory and descriptive. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in poetry is to develop a piece with beautiful mimesis, and then start adding mundane chunks of diegesis to explain things. It would be like baking a perfect soufflé, and then topping it with a ring of fried sausages. Some of the longer poems of Wordsworth suffer from this mistake.

Diegesis is usually where the three miseries of meaning, message, and moral afflict good verse. The impulse to explain, describe, point out, and make observations often sucks a good poem down into the vortex of boredom. I have tried, in the above limericks, to avoid this trap by making the rhymes in each limerick perfect, by adding similes in almost every one, and by keeping the syntax and diction lively.

You really couldn’t write a poem on the rules of English composition using fictive mimesis exclusively. It would seem strange and awkward. In the hierarchy of literary composition, fictive mimesis is in a much higher place than diegesis, so using it for something plain and ordinary and plebeian is pretentious and unfitting. In fact, the entire modernist project in poetry has been to find deep significance in things that are small and trivial. But the proper style for small, comic, and uncontroversial matters is diegesis. That’s what I’ve used here. I hope this will help explain fictive mimesis, by way of contrast.



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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23 Responses

  1. Norma Pain

    So interesting, fun and educational. I definitely did not ‘drift off and doze’. Thank you Joseph.

  2. Phil S. Rogers

    A humorous and fun read, with each limerick making a point that I believe really applies to anything being written; poetry, fiction, history, even a personal letter. I know I wish I had that ability.

  3. Mia

    Think thoughts in advance, not on paper!
    Your mind—not your pen—is the shaper
    __That puts words in order
    __Like a prison house warder.
    Don’t write while your brain’s in a vapor!

    Can I print this and put it on the wall by my computer?
    It will save Mike some trouble if I adhere to it.
    On second thoughts can I print all of them?

    Seriously excellent as usual. Thank you.

      • Mia

        Thank you Prof. Salemi
        this is such a fun and positive way of teaching.

        I remembered after I posted that it isn’t ‘can I’ when
        asking permission, it should be ‘may I ‘ . Because…

        It’s up to us if we can or we can’t
        But when asking permission
        Remember, it’s may or may not
        So don’t be a bad mannered sloth
        And always remember to ask with aplomb.

        I couldn’t think of a better word than aplomb to make it rhyme
        but I don’t think I will forget this rule again.

  4. Cheryl Corey

    Your syntax and diction are indeed lively throughout. Very well-wrought humorous lessons.

  5. Julian D. Woodruff

    At the risk of sounding the pedant skewered nearly 70 years ago by Sylvia Fine in the Danny Kaye vehicle The Court Jestor (“To whom do I hum, to whom?”), I’ll take up (with more bluster than confidence) one point Prof. Salemi makes in passing.

    To whomever the point may concern:
    Some among us still do a slow burn
    When for “whom” we get “who.”
    English speakers once knew
    Better. Now no one bothers to learn.

    Are our tongues just afraid of inflection,
    Set on scuttling “whom”’s resurrection?
    We say “he,” “him,” and “his”;
    You need not be a whiz
    To detect the clear pronoun connection.

    Are you never left scratching your head
    Over what someone’s written or said:
    Was it X, Y, and Z
    Who did something to V
    Or completely vice-versa, instead?

    “Febuary” we favor and teach;
    Surely “libary”’s well within reach.
    Dropping “whom” is the same:
    It’s just lazy and lame.
    We’re descending to bubblegum speech.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I’m just as upset as you are about the general confusion of who and whom. Part of the problem is that no one studies Latin, which would help a student to learn very early about inflection, and the distinction between subjective and objective case in English.

      Native speakers of English never have a problem with the pronouns “he,” “him,” and his,” or with “she,” “her,” and “hers,” because they are used regularly in colloquial speech and therefore are engraved in the memory.

  6. Paul A. Freeman

    That ‘who’ and ‘whom’ I finally nailed down when I learned some Arabic.

    And adding to your Limerick-fest, Joseph, here’s one I wrote yesterday.

    ‘i’ before ‘e’ Limerick

    We’re told to put ‘i’ before ‘e’,
    except if it comes after ‘c’.
    So, what about ‘thief’,
    ‘sheikh’, ‘concierge’, ‘brief’,
    ‘surveillance’ and ‘sovereignty’?

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      “Thief” and “brief” do place i before e, thus following the rule. “Sheikh” and “concierge” are foreign borrowings, where all bets are off. As for “surveillance” and “sovereignty,” they just show that human language is idiosyncratic and historically vagrant, and simply not subject to the imposition of abstract theory and mathematical precision. Just like the rules of meter, as was argued in a big fight here some time back.

  7. Roy Eugene Peterson

    What a great teaching vehicle. Fortunately, my mother was an English and Latin teacher which helped me considerably in life. Given that I still make mistakes if I forget to carefully edit. When writing a poem, one of the problems is sculpting a word to adhere to the meter. For example, if I use the word “every” or interesting,” I put in an apostrophe so the reader understands how I consider it should be pronounced in that sentence such as every or e’vry, interesting or int’resting. I debate about putting in the single apostrophe each time I use it, since it could be considered a distraction. Related to meter is also regional pronunciations of which, I am sure, Texans and Southerners have different inflections and enunciations. You are so right about “who” and “whom” written in the proper cases as now virtually interchangeable. For example, I could rhyme car with far, the latter meaning fire.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Some poets here, like Bruce Dale Wise, use the apostrophe regularly to indicate a dropped or elided vowel. I use it very rarely, only when the rhyme word at the end of a line needs to be finessed (as if I were to rhyme /Morton/ with /sportin’/ or /e’er/ with /fair/. Other than that, the practice seems to me to be distracting and archaic.

      • Roy Eugene Peterson

        Thank you, Joseph! Now I will pursue that course of action. I agree it is distractive to me and I can make the mental leap in other’s poems, so now I will change my process. I owe you one!

  8. Alena Casey

    “One of the biggest mistakes you can make in poetry is to develop a piece with beautiful mimesis, and then start adding mundane chunks of diegesis to explain things.”

    Applicable not just to poetry but to other forms of literature. I notice that Christian novelists in particular struggle with this.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      My statement was really just an application of the well-known maxim: “Show, don’t tell.” If you can get your point across with mimesis and figurative imaginings, it’s always more effective than explicating it prosaically. Christian writers have a tendency to preach or proselytize, and so this is a real pitfall for them.

  9. Brian A. Yapko

    Each one of these is delightfully sharp and entertaining, Joe, and provides far more useful information than most English composition courses. Your phrasing of these little gems veers between hilarious and dead serious in a way that is appropriately memorable: phrases that especially grabbed me are: “Your prose should be sharp as a razor/And cut through all crap like a laser.” “Your paragraphs should show strict reason/And good syllogistic cohesion.” (syllogistic cohesion is metrically brilliant.) “Keep all in good order/Like a well guarded border.” And my favorite of all the limericks which is so efficiently educational the poetry seems like an added benefit rather than its purpose.

    These need to be given to all college freshmen.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Many thanks, Brian. My main concern when composing is to make my work interesting, intense, compelling, scary, humorous, pungent, infuriating, or sexy — any or all of those, plus whatever other spicy adjective one can think of. If my poems can be educational too, that’s just gravy.

      • Brian A. Yapko

        My pleasure but I just noticed that my initial comment got clipped! This is the “favorite” I was referring to in my second to last sentence:

        Be careful when dealing with clauses;
        They ought to be linked with your pauses—
        __If one of them dangles
        __It utterly mangles
        Your argument’s structural causes.

  10. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe, I absolutely love these “Cantankerous Limericks”… they should be obligatory in every English lesson… what a great way to learn!

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Many thanks, Susan. I think you should be told that I had you in mind specifically (“a good English wench”) when I wrote Limerick # 4.

      Your words are definitely as “strong as a wrench.”

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Yay! What a huge compliment! Give me “good English wench” with words as “strong as a wrench” above “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist” any day. I’m smiling.

  11. Yael

    These limericks are as entertaining as they are educational, thank you very much. It seems like a good idea to print these out for easy reference just in case I can’t avoid having to compose some English prose.


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