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The limerick reclaimed

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Let's face it. For many people the limerick signifies a naughty little construct. Often salted with dirty words and an attitude to match ("There once was a man from Nantucket . . ."), the limerick lives in most imaginations as the drunken uncle of polite word play.

With the publication of Ernest W. Lefever's insightful and entertaining collection "Liberating the Limerick," all that, as they say, is about to change. As Mr. Lefever writes in the book's introduction, "This collection of 230 verses by fifty authors, past and present, demonstrates that limericks can be wise, hilarious, and often sexy without being obscene."

After reviewing what defines a limerick -- a five-line verse in which the first, second and fifth lines rhyme -- readers soon realize that in this sprightly collection, there is something deeper afoot.

With categories such as "Battle of the Sexes," "Feminine Mystique," "Freudian Quips," "Padres and Preachers," as well as History, Politics and Literature, the limericks included here address a broad range of everyday experience. Though the book is conservative in its approach, it will likely resonate across partisan and ideological boundaries.

Because of the sheer fun and smarts of Mr. Lefever's selections, readers will return to the volume again and again. And part of its undeniable charm is that, taken as a whole, it makes a persuasive argument for the power of restraint.

Offering up real jewels by a cross-section of writers including Edward Lear, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ogden Nash, Bertrand Russell and Lyn Nofziger, there are also verses from Mr. Lefever himself, and the proverbial "anon."

The book is to the core a presentation of art informed by moral clarity. In attempting to offer perspective on the historic and contemporary culture war, Mr. Lefever includes limericks such as this one:

God's plan made a hopeful

beginning

But man spoiled his

chances by sinning.

We trust that the story

Will end in God's glory;

But at present, the other

side's winning.

--Oliver Wendell Holmes

Throughout the book, Mr. Lefever shows that tackling even the most prickly issues need not be a dry or joyless endeavor. The inclusion of New Yorker cartoons throughout the book is lagniappe.

The question that will likely occur to readers first approaching this book is: How did Mr. Lefever, the founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the author of a dozen books on ethics and politics, and the holder of a Ph.D. in Christian ethics from Yale University, come to compile a book of limericks? Mr. Lefever writes: "Frankly, I don't regard this collection as a descent. Many, perhaps most, of these verses reflect facets of truth and virtue wrapped in irony and caricature."

People will inevitably choose their favorites from the collection. A quick and unscientific poll I conducted yielded two front-runners:

A Tory, once out in his

motor,

Ran over a Laborite voter.

"Thank goodness," he cried,

"He was on the wrong side,

"I don't blame myself one

iota."

--A.W. Webster

And:

There was an old fellow of

Tyre,

Who casually sat on a fire.

When asked, "Is it hot?"

He replied, "No it's not;

"I'm James Winterbottom,

Esquire."

--anon

I have read the slim volume over and over again to find a personal favorite, and I cannot choose one, though just about any of the limericks from Ogden Nash are tops. And, I was delighted to find four limericks from the late Lyn Nofziger, who was a regular contributor to these pages, including this one:

When spreading the deadly

anthrax

Without leaving a trace of

your tracks

You can send it by mail,

But you are bound to fail

If you try to send it by FAX.

-- Lyn Nofziger

Mr. Lefever scanned more than 9,000 limericks in order to assemble his collection. As he notes, "they embrace a wide range of characters from Adam, Eve, Noah, Moses, and Sampson, to Washington, William H. Taft, Gerald Ford, and Al Sharpton." It is an effort that has paid off. This is a book that most certainly contributes to our appreciation of serious literature.

But I would be remiss if I parted without returning to a bit of fun. As noted, there are only clean limericks to be found in these pages, but do not believe for an instant that Mr. Lefever has forsworn that Massachusetts isle mentioned at the top of this review. To wit:

There was once a man from

Nantucket

Who kept all his cash in a

bucket,

But his daughter, named

Nan,

Ran away with a man,

And as for the bucket,

Nantucket.

--Dayton Voorhees

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