Psycho Babble

Limericks That Leave You Hanging

When we expect to hear a rhyme and don’t

By Jessica Love | December 18, 2014


Jessica Love’s last Psycho Babble column appeared on Oct. 2. We are re-posting several of our favorite columns, including this one, published on Oct. 17, 2013.

A mouse in her room woke Miss Doud,
Who was frightened and screamed very loud.
Then a happy thought hit her:
To scare off the critter
She sat up in bed and just … purred?

Ah yes, the limerick, a poetic form associated not with grand literary tradition so much as bawdy old men from distinctive-sounding cities. But silly as these ditties are, we’ve come to expect a great deal from them—the strict AABBA rhyme scheme, the juxtaposition of short and long lines, the heavy dollop of head-bopping anapests (da da DA da da DA da da DA)—and when a poem doesn’t come through, we notice.

We don’t need psychology to tell us this, of course. But a new paper from one of my favorite labs proposes that our responses to poems that defy our formal expectations may also have an emotional component.

University of Glasgow’s Christoph Scheepers and his colleagues prerecorded a few dozen (remarkably clean) limericks to play to participants. The catch is that each poem was recorded with five different endings. One was the original or baseline ending (She sat up in bed and just meowed), while the other four endings violated, in turn: the poem’s expected rhyme scheme (She sat up in bed and just purred); the poem’s expected rhythm (She sat up in bed and loudly meowed); the syntactic rules of English (She sat up in bed to just meowed); and the poem’s coherence (She sat up in bed and just ploughed).

In one study, participants then rated the poems on a scale from “highly anomalous” to “perfectly ok.” Baseline versions were deemed reliably more “ok” than any of the others, suggesting that participants recognized and were affected by all of the violations. But in another study, researchers measured participants’ pupils as they listened to the poems. Here, they found that the rhyme violations—and only the rhyme violations—caused the pupils to dilate.

Now, as behavioral measures go, pupil dilation is pretty new, and nobody can argue with any confidence how it should be interpreted. But an earlier study pegged it to mental effort: the faster the mind spins, the more the pupils react. So first the researchers reasoned that rhyme violations in limericks simply elicit more surprise or confusion (and thus require more mental work to overcome that surprise or confusion) than other sorts of violations. But no, a closer look at responses to individual poems revealed that even those rhyme violations that received relatively “ok” ratings still caused pronounced dilation, while other types of “highly anomalous” violations did not. This led researchers to their next preferred interpretation: above and beyond evoking surprise, rhyme violations in limericks pack a singularly emotional wallop.

Really—emotions are involved? Limericks are not exactly the stuff of heart-wrenching drama. But then again, more so than in other poetic forms, exact rhymes carry limericks. They give the form its momentum and its punch line; they’re just about all the form has going for it. Perhaps it really is a betrayal of sorts should the final line not deliver.

Ashley Anna McHugh, a friend and accomplished formalist poet, found the idea that we might respond viscerally to the disruption of a rhyme scheme highly plausible. “When I first taught ‘Leda and the Swan by Yeats,” she told me, “my students asked, out of the blue, why the last line didn’t rhyme since the entire poem is otherwise written in true rhyme. They seemed very frustrated, confused—almost confrontational, to tell the truth! Of course, that’s exactly how Yeats wanted that poem to end—in uncertainty and frustration, with a sense that the event is unfinished and that we are lacking in understanding and hopeless to change that.”

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