What's in a Clerihew? Plenty

If there's a better form of poetry for the Twitter Age, I don't know it. "Haiku" you say. Yes, fast and obscure fits the bill, but unlike Haiku, the Clerihew shoots off deft sparks because its intentions are overtly comic. It beards the lions. If Groucho Marx wrote poetry, he'd have gone all in for the Clerihew.

The "thing" (for so I shall call it, for its a curiosity) was invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. When Bentley was a teenager in school (and doodling in the margins as any self-respecting adolescent must) the following lines percolated straight into his head:

Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

The "thing" is faster than a mongoose and just as absurd as a mongoose. The rhyme scheme is AABB which is sufficient unto the purpose -- the Clerihew's implicit agenda is to push famous people into the fun house. Bentley also wrote this one:

George the Third
Ought to never have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.

Edmund Bentley's best friend was G.K. Chesterton. I'm sure hardly anyone on Twitter recalls Chesterton but he was a major literary figure in Edwardian Britain and he popularized the "thing" -- so much so that esteemed poets took it up. W. H. Auden was a superb practitioner. Here are two of my favorites by Auden:

Lord Byron
Once succumbed to a Siren:
His flesh was weak,
Hers Greek.

When Karl Marx
Found the phrase 'financial sharks,'
He sang a Te Deum
In the British Museum.

As you can see, the second Auden Clerihew is especially witty -- Marxism, god, and intellectual serendipity all cozy together in the British museum is dryly hilarious.

Late last spring, a new collection of Clerihews by the poet Paul Ingram hit the stores and its delights are salty and colorful. First off I should say I love the book's title: The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram. It makes perfect sense that wit should have been hidden -- like some hitherto unrevealed manuscript by Voltaire -- one is more intrigued by lost marginalia than the plain graffiti next door. The book (which has a wonderful Foreword by Elizabeth McCracken) does not explain why the Clerihews were lost though Ingram says they were scrawled on cocktail napkins and scraps of discarded paper and one day he found a mother lode of them in a moist basement box. Ingram's readers are the beneficiaries of his spring cleaning. How I like knowing this. I like old comedy unearthed. As a college student I adored ancient Greek graffiti I found in Athens. But I digress.

Ingram is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop where he studied poetry. For over 30 years, he's made his living selling books to writers and he's arguably one of the best read citizens in America. Unlike so many who've made their lives among books, Ingram exudes merriment. As McCracken says: "The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram are everything that Paul Ingram himself is: hilarious, ribald, tender, erudite, naughty, every decibel and every octave."

McCracken is right. What's in a Clerihew? Plenty. Here are some of my favorite "Ingrams":

Jan Sibelius
Used a alias,
He always checked in
As Huckleberry Finn.

Greeleaf Whittier
Thought nothing was shittier,
Than being stuck in the snow
With Henry Thoreau.

John James Audubon
Took too much laudanum,
And became unpleasant
With a ring-necked pheasant.

And perhaps my favorite:

Jesus Christ
Was sliced and diced,
And punched with holes
To save our souls.

Paul Ingram reminds us that wit and economy are the barbs of poetry -- a good message in the age of the Tweet.

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