- There Once was No Girl from the Vineyard
"The Man from Nantucket" is a powerful and memorable poem, by far the best-known limerick (and perhaps the best-known short poem) in American literature, and it derives much of its power from its explicitly sexual diction and imagery. Yet, if I can imagine an eleven-year-old boy becoming somewhat and very confusedly aroused as he says "dick," "cum," "cunt," and "fuck it," I can't imagine how "The Man from Nantucket" or any other canonically dirty limerick could elevate the heart rate, increase the respiration, flush the cheeks, engorge the corpora cavernosa, or moisten the orifices of an adult reader. Nor can I imagine an adult reader who, having already begun under other auspices to feel amorous or horny, would turn to a poem like "The Man from Nantucket" to better enjoy, sustain, or increase their sexual desire.
Perhaps "The Man from Nantucket" is not "erotic" to the degree that it is meant to be funny. (Blessed be those who have had the good fortune to enjoy sexual arousal and laughter at the same time.) But as if to emphasize this inverse relation between being amused and being aroused, it seems that when we speak or write about sex, humor is so common as to seem a necessity, so common that my certainty that "The Man from Nantucket" is meant to be funny is an occasion to ask, "Meant to be funny for whom?"
Forgive me for responding with the obvious: "The Man from Nantucket" is meant to be funny to young males, for whom it (and other such limericks) provides a linguistic test case for how to participate in sexual discourse and sexual life; like its brethren limericks, it is a tiny, tightly-constructed bit of word candy that heightens the reciter's (and perhaps even the listeners') sensual experiences of words and syntax even as it offers a minimal site for worrying the social and psychological and physical challenges of puberty. The sexually explicit language of "The Man from Nantucket" conjures a caricature of the masturbator as isolato, and the hyperbolical length of his penis is a metonym for his over-commitment to self-pleasure. (Though some may read this dick as a synecdoche, a part that matches a "hole" somewhere on that Nantucketer's body.)
So it is eleven-year-old boys who are the target audience for "The Man from Nantucket"—eleven-year-old boys who stand, tiny dicks in hand, at the on-ramps to their sexual lives; eleven-year-old boys who are anxious about whether they will ever have the strength of will to defer the pleasures achievable at home alone for the riskier thrills of copulation with an other. The joke of the poem is on them; this raunchy humor that engages with and yet keeps sexual arousal at bay is produced for them. The juvenile anxieties the joke responds to may be understood as hetero- or homo-sexual or in-between the poles of the binary: in any case the question is, "Am I, like that man from Nantucket, going to please myself by myself, or will I risk engaging with others?" The poem's seemingly permanent currency among the young males for whom it was composed exemplifies how a vernacular poem about sex may predicate and therefore propagate an auto-erotic rather than an erotic imagination.
There is only one "The Man from Nantucket," and if I am right about the poem he is the only kind of man we could expect from our poetry to produce. Yet there are two prominent nearly adjacent islands off the coast of southern Massachusetts, and there is all that water that connects and divides Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, and I have long wondered why there is no opposite-sex companion poem to "The Man from Nantucket," no limerick beginning, "There once was a girl from the Vineyard. . .", or "A sassy young lass from Oak Bluffs. . . ." Of course the absence of such a pendant limerick may be ascribed to the difficulty of finding two rhymes for "Vineyard" or "Oak Bluffs." ("Sin-ward"? "Smoke puffs"?) But a more powerfully suggestive...