Limericks from beyond the Rings of Saturn


Arts & Culture

Illustration by Edward Lear

I must write about Waterman. I must try to do justice to Waterman. Inclination, affection, and duty combine: I must speak and write about Waterman.

23 September 2017, I was in Chicago. I was in a bookstore I seldom visit: Open Books. Open Books does not often “speak to my concerns,” but that day was an exception. I had found, for six dollars, a hardcover of Kierkegaard’s Letters and Documents, volume 25: Princeton edition, jacket intact. I did not yet know that the book is neither rare nor valuable. Nor did I know that, in a year and a half of owning the book, I would not open it once. No, I was exultant: I thought it was probably worth forty-five dollars, and that I would start reading it in the airport on the way back to Texas.

That day I found something else special. I found Paul Waterman. In particular, I found his 1965 book, Five Lines to Limerick. It has fifty-six numbered pages. It was warmly inscribed (“Best to Virginia Rick”) in ballpoint pen on 22 April 1966, in Worcester, New York. The book was published by Candor Press in Dexter, Missouri. Here is the cover:

I speculate I am the first person to read this book in forty years. If anyone looking at the present article knows different, I beg you to email me. Go to my website. In fact, if any of you have any images of Paul Waterman, or knowledge about his life, your assistance would be cordially appreciated.

Not that Paul Waterman, by the way. Not the CEO of whatever. I’m talking about Paul Waterman, the author of:

• Boy for a Blonde (1932)

• Cabin for Two (1934)

• Love to the Town (1955)

• Mad Land of Limerick (1963)

• Those Brats from Limerick (1964)

• Five Lines to Limerick (1965)

• Thus and Now (1974)

And don’t misunderstand. I would not have you think my attachment to Waterman is owing to the merit, properly so-called, of his limericks. His limericks, and really only this one book of them, which is all I have, are the reason for my attachment—but it isn’t about merit.

What’s it about then. It’s about some random dude who was cuckoo—perfectly, utterly cuckoo—in the same way Christopher Smart and John Clare and William Cowper were. I’m saying: Waterman was mad, but his poetic talent operated unhindered by his madness.

Do you know that bit in Apocalypse Now where Dennis Hopper says of Marlon Brando, “The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad”? Well, with Waterman, both mind and soul are mad—but his prosody is sane.

How do I know he was mad? I don’t. Maybe he wasn’t. But I defy anyone who reads these limericks to think he was merely weird. The word weird is insufficient. Quite insufficient.

Consider: Edward Lear’s limericks are called “nonsense,” but they’re not really that. They make sense; they’re just perverse.

There was an Old Man of Dunluce,
Who went out to sea on a goose;
When he’d gone out a mile, he observed with a smile,
“It is time to return to Dunluce.”

It’s not that that doesn’t make sense. It’s just deliberately pointless. Indeed, the humor partly depends on the reader’s recognizing the effect is deliberate. Whereas, Waterman’s limericks really are nonsense. Which is to say: they are unintelligible. Not all of them—but most. Just to give you an idea:


There was a wild teen on a lift
Who stole the whole cage to be deft,
Who fumbled the “power”
Till lower and lower
He sank to red horns and “went p-f-f-f-t”!

It should be noted I’ve retained Waterman’s punctuation exactly. I’m only going to say this once: Every Waterman original I quote in this piece is reproduced with molecular accuracy, from my copy’s text.

But wait. Is the above limerick unintelligible? A teenager hijacks a freight elevator—got that. I guess he plummets to his demise—which, for some reason, is figured as the deflation of a football. Pretty much following. The parts I don’t get are the title and the construction “sank to red horns.”

This is a very common problem for me, as I go through the hundred limericks in this book. I keep thinking maybe Waterman was from Australia or something, and all these bizarre constructions are idioms from twenties Canberra. The principal weakness of that theory is the effect comes up way too often. Poem after poem, you read the thing and go, What. No question mark, just: What.


There was a wise squirrel in a stump,
“Who” said, “When the savages “pump”,
It’s prudently good
To cling to the wood,
Avoiding the “smoke-with-a-bump”.”



There’ a car which is known as the Whiz,
A car past the day of the Liz.
How fast is this car?
Why, fast as a star
Or fast as a capital Is!



There was a mean king in a huff
Who spoke to his queen with such guff
She faded away
Two thirds of a day
And hid in the smoke of his bluff.



There was a young Duke in his slumber
Threw girls by the horde from his Humber,
Then told the whole court
He wasn’t the sort
To pester a dream for the number.


When I was reading the book for the first time, in the airport on the way back to Texas (and neglecting Kierkegaard, ’cuz I thought he would be too difficult), I believed for the longest time I was simply distracted. I kept saying to myself “Wake up, man. Pay attention!” because page after page was delivering precisely the sensation of reading something easy but not understanding it ’cuz you’re not paying attention.

I have no doubt someone reading these words will think he or she understands one or more of the above-quoted specimens. And maybe you do, pal. Maybe you’re a hundred and one years old, born in Canberra. Or maybe—and I want you to think hard about this before you email me—maybe you’re simply as nuts as Waterman. Explain these:


Said a minister caught by a flirt,
“There’s hope in the fall of a quirt.
And so at the start,
I’m going to “smart”
One stroke where you choose to be hurt.”


There was an old stripper named Clarice
Who hid in the folds of an arras,
Who saw on the stage
Four “strips” of her age
And “knew” she was younger than Clarice.


A waspish old lady of Macon
Came home with a passel of bacon.
On finding she’d paid
Too much by a shade,
She threw all the bacon to Macon.


There was a good egg in a bar
Who paid for the drinks of a tar.
Who damaged his “shell”,
In paying so well,
And fell from his role as a star.
In every one of these cases, Waterman demonstrates excellent control of his sound palette. There’s hardly a limerick in the whole book with any kind of prosodic fault. Awkwardness and what Samuel Johnson called “uncertain meter” are almost unknown here. Everything is rhythmically limpid; one can sight-read the stuff with complete confidence. Yet it’s like these poems are fantastic creatures whose only habitat is your peripheral vision. You can see something moving there, but if it holds up some fingers and says “How many?” you can’t tell. You turn to look—and the limerick’s gone.

Oh Waterman, where are you? Where are your grandchildren? Why did you write these pieces? Would that I had been there in Worcester, New York when you read them aloud. I would not have seen you, Waterman. I would have been facing the audience the whole time, for I am dying to know how they took it.

By the way, this essay is the first of two on Waterman. Part II will let you know all I learn from Waterman’s other books, which are in the mail, headed my way, even as I write this. I am particularly interested to see if his earliest books are like what I’ve described here. I shall also create an anthology of annihilating prose snippets, written (no doubt) in the haughty style of Vladimir Nabokov and hurled at me by Australian code-breakers. Meanwhile, the overstimulated should be warned: Waterman’s books are surprisingly expensive. The copy of Five Lines to Limerick I’m looking at, on an open tab in front of me, is thirty-five dollars. “About that I know not what to make.”

I close, though, with a limerick wherein Waterman uncharacteristically mentions himself. Here, too, he leaves you squinting:


Said a limerick written by Paul,
“My character’s bad as my fall:
His terrible pen,
Now scratching again,
Has gone to the heart of the moll.”


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.