Is the term “light verse” a polite euphemism for “bad poetry”? I am starting to think so. Take, for example, the clerihew.

Brett Maxwell, a recent acquaintance whom I’m a bit afraid I’m going to offend here, suggested that I take on the clerihew as part of my Weekly Poem Project (if you’re new to the blog, you can read a description of the project here, though I haven’t been posting even close to weekly of late). After all the trouble I had with heroic couplets, and the fact that I’m wrestling mightily right now with a chapter of my book, I thought that writing a clerihew might be a nice little break. It’s short, easy, and silly. What could be better?

Well, maybe something good. And I’m not sure if it’s possible for a clerihew to actually be a good poem. Which I suppose is part of its point. But reading (and writing) clerihews reminds me a lot of watching the Ricky Gervais series Extras, which for me involved lots of cringing, and lots of wondering who actually finds cringing fun. (Here’s a good scene involving the very good-looking Orlando Bloom.) Even more so than the original The Office, which definitely makes one squirm in delicious discomfort.

So what’s a clerihew? It’s named after an Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who invented the poem in the 1890s when he was a bored teenager in science class and then continued to write them for the rest of his life. (Meager sustenance!) They are biographical poems, much like the double-dactyl, which I profiled early on in the Weekly Poem Project. The rules for a clerihew, however, are much simpler than the double dactyl. They are as follows:

  1. The clerihew has four lines.
  2. They rhyme AABB (i.e., the poem is two couplets–possibly but probably not of the heroic sort).
  3. The first line contains a person’s name; the name should end the line (so you have to rhyme with the person’s name).
  4. The poem is supposed to be comical, and can distort meter, incorporate non-sequiturs, improbable or forced rhymes, or burlesque the subject of the poem for humorous effect.

The problem with these rules is that I think because you’ve got rhymed couplets, which are already hard to write without sounding pretentious (or ploddingly dim, or both), and then you’re supposed to violate meter, stretch comparisons, or incorporate other elements of “bad poetry,” you pretty much end up having to write bad poetry in order to write a clerihew at all. This is what I discovered when I tried to write some clerihews. They aren’t hard to write. But they are really bad. Here’s one:

Mahatma Gandhi
Liked his beaches sandy.
When summer is breezy
Peace always comes easy.

And how about this:

Johannes Sebastian Bach
Wrote music against the clock.
That’s why so many compositions
Really did come to full fruition.

It struck me that it was easier to write clerihews for longer names than shorter ones, just because you have a bit more real estate to work with, which makes rhyming easier. So I tried something short– my own name, which has only 3 syllables (and which only has that many syllables because I took my husband’s last name when we got married, tacking it onto the two one-syllable names I’d been given). But this wasn’t too hard, either:

Jean Lee Cole
Has no soul.
Brain, maybe less.
How much, she’ll let you guess.

To give props to Brett, he actually challenged me to write a clerihew by writing one based on his own name, to wit:

You won’t find Brett Maxwell
Eating a Snackwell
Instead I get fat
On pain au chocolate

Now that I am a seasoned practitioner, I will say that I think that’s a pretty darned good clerihew, as far as they go. Even W. H. Auden wrote terrible clerihews. And he wrote a whole book of them! (I guess he got a big advance? Ha! Just kidding!) I think Auden must have known they were terrible, since he titled his book American Graffiti. But he still published them, so he must not have been too ashamed. Here are two of his:

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.

<groan> <cringe>

The clerihew, of course, has its defenders. One of them wrote– in a blog sponsored by the Kenyon Review, no less, that “something in the clerihew’s collision of loud rhyme and pith and fanciful biography draws many of us back to it.” Well, that may be true for “many of us,” but for most of us I think that what draws us back to it is that it’s pretty easy to do, and doing things that are easy can be satisfying. It’s like taking out the trash– it’s a little chore that satisfies when, and because, it’s done with. I did something productive with my day. Still, I think that if chores must be done, I’d rather water the flowers than take out the trash. And for my money, the grook, another short, simple, and humorous form of verse, is a lot more satisfying, though it is much harder to write a good one (I discuss the grook at the end of this post, and my friend Melissa Girard expounded eloquently on their virtues here).

But I must admit that now that I’ve got the hang of it, I’m having a hard time turning off the spigot. In case you’re still reading, here are a few more. These two are literary:

Jane Austen
Loved Boston.
OK, I’m probably lying.
But I’m pretty sure she was afraid of flying.

Walt Whitman
Hired a hitman
To settle all the rising feuds
Between his contained multitudes.

One could go on ad nauseam. Oh wait. I think I already have.


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