Poetry Kaleidoscope: Guide to Poetry

Clerihew

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A Clerihew (or clerihew) is a very specific kind of humorous verse, typically with the following properties:

  • The first line consists solely (or almost solely) of a well-known person's name
  • The verse is humorous and usually whimsical, showing the subject from an unusual point of view; but it is hardly ever satirical, abusive or obscene
  • It has four lines of irregular length
  • The rhyme structure is AABB
  • The metre and rhyme are often strained for humorous effect (like Ogden Nash's poems).

The form was invented by and is named after Edmund Clerihew Bentley.

Examples

The first ever Clerihew:

Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.
Edmund Clerihew Bentley
Worked swiftly if not gently,
Tracking murderers down by a hidden clew
In whodunit and clerihew.
Edmund Clerihew Bentley
Mused, when he ought to have studied intently;
It was this muse
That inspired clerihews.
Edmund Clerihew Bentley
was evidently
a man
who could not get his verses to scan
Sir Karl Popper
Perpetrated a whopper
When he boasted to the world that he and he alone
Had toppled Rudolf Carnap from his Vienna Circle throne.
(by Armand T. Ringer)
Sir Christopher Wren
Said, "I am going to dine with some men.:
If anyone calls,
Say I am designing St Paul's."
John Stuart Mill,
By a mighty effort of will,
Overcame his natural bonhomie
And wrote 'Principles of Political Economy'.
Daniel Defoe
Lived a long time ago
He had nothing to do so
He wrote Robinson Crusoe
Johann Sebastian Bach
was fond of saying, "Ach!"
And instead of saying "Guten Morgen"
He played the Toccata and Fugue on the organ!
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Lived upon venison;
Not cheap, I fear,
Because venison's dear.
(credited to Louis Untermeyer)
George the Third
Ought never to have occured.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.

Clerihews are occasionally not about a particular person, as in this example by Bentley:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography,
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

This is really a meta-Clerihew, as Clerihews are mini biographies.

The World's Shortest Clerihew

"To the Poetry Editor of the New Yorker" was composed, over breakfast, by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, in honor of Howard Moss, poet, critic, and editor of poetry at The New Yorker. Despite or because of the poem's brevity, Auden and Kallman manage to rhyme the names of three different people. The poem was discovered years after Auden's death in a manuscript notebook donated by his heirs to the New York Public Library. It has apparently never been printed in The New Yorker:

TO THE POETRY EDITOR OF THE NEW YORKER

Is Robert Lowell
Better than Noel
Coward,
Howard?

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