On Limericks and Bustards

S M Chen
4 min readMar 28, 2021

“A limerick packs laughs anatomical

Into space that is economical.

The best ones I’ve seen

So seldom are clean

And the clean ones so seldom are comical.”

  • James Silverton, limerick connoisseur

In 1978, a local limerick contest was held. The judge was none other than Isaac Asimov (1920–1992), who segued from biochemistry professor to prolific writer (over 500 books written and edited). He was perhaps best known for his sci-fi work.

Great bustard

Of 12,000 entries, the limerick Asimov judged best was this:

“The bustard’s an exquisite fowl

With minimal reason to growl.

He escapes what would be


By grace of a fortunate vowel.”

I admit that, when I read this, I didn’t know what a bustard was. In fact, I’d never even heard of it.

But I did like the limerick. The appeal of a single polysyllabic word in line 4 seemed undeniable.

The limerick is a unique form of poetry defined thusly:

“A humorous, frequently bawdy, verse of 3 long and 2 short lines, rhyming pattern aabba, popularized by Edward Lear.”

Lines 3 and 4 generally have fewer syllables than lines 1, 2 and 5.

I have several books of limericks on one shelf of my library and open them from time to time if I feel in the need of a good laugh.

So much for my amateur ornithology attempts, when, as a lad in New England, I would foray down lanes, past stone walls and ponds, into the woods and meadows, small black leather notebook in one hand, Roger Tory Peterson’s “Field Guide to North American Birds” in another. Honed no. 2 pencil in my breast pocket, I listened intently for the sounds of birds, trying to spy them perched on branches or in flight. I didn’t have access to binoculars at the time, but my unaided vision was pretty good.

The bustard wasn’t to be found in Peterson’s guide and, come to think of it, probably wasn’t in John James Audubon’s fine collection of bird paintings either.