Clerihews

Edmund Clerihew Bentley

July 29, 2020–

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”

That is an example of a poetic form called the clerihew. I am stunned that as a writer it was today I learned about this absurd construction.

A clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by English novelist Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The rules are definitely whimsical. The first line is the name of a famous person, which the poem portrays in “an absurd light.” The lines rhyme AABB, with bonus points for forced rhymes and irregular line length and meter.

Here are examples, starting with one about a local celebrity:

Lady Bird Johnson
We made fun of how she pronounced her words
And laughed when the press called her ‘Lady Bird’
But Mrs. Lyndon Johnson was a gracious First Lady, who gave ecology a push
When she exhorted us, southern style, to “Plant a tree, a shrub, or a bush.”
by Gershon Wolf

How about one in two languages:

Verdi Opera Pasta
Verdi ha scritto molte opere
tante quante sono le forme di pasta
ma solo la pasta può essere
goduto in meno di tre ore. 

Verdi wrote many operas
as many as there are shapes of pastas
but here’s a point to keep in mind:
pasta can be enjoyed in less than three hour’s time.
by Maurice Rigoler

People continue to write them about today’s celebrities:

A last name? Nah! It’s not necessary for Adele.
That voice! Oh my, she’s quite the singing angel!
A definite ten on a one to ten scale
She’s one of a kind…a celestial nightingale!
by Edward Ibeh

Ripped from today’s headlines:

A lost season
the Wuhan bat
we’ve already seen quite enough of that
the Baseball bat, sadly sequestered,
closeted now, we cannot bear to look, it festered.
by Reay Mackay

But the best clerihews are about historical figures. Computing pioneer Alan Turing’s students picked on the genius with this clerihew:

Turing
Must have been alluring
To get made a don
So early on.

Here’s a pointed poem about the inventor of the thermos bottle (or Dewar flask):

Sir James Dewar
Is a better man than you are
None of you asses
Can liquefy gases.

Brevity sets apart this clerihew about German-British physicist Klaus Fuchs:

Fuchs
Looks
Like an ascetic
Theoretic

The winning entry in a 1983 Games magazine contest was this gem:

Did Descartes
Depart
With the thought
“Therefore I’m not?”

There’s something uplifting about bad poetry. It knocks lofty prose off its pedestal, dusting off a new audience among the groundlings.

There is a challenge in writing badly, yet doing it well. Try it.

Full House
Covering the page with prose-y prowess!
Entertaining? Informing? Witty? Solemn?
Nah. It’s just a column.