Clerihew Day: The Return

Cody Walker
July 10, 2013
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I’ve been away from this blog for two and a half years, and it would be only a slight exaggeration to say I’ve spent most of that time writing clerihews. Now it’s July 10th again—Clerihew Day, to fellow celebrants—and I’m thinking about Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who was born on this date in 1875. I wrote a short huzzah to Bentley and his four-line invention several years ago, but I didn’t really investigate the reasons for the form’s continuing appeal. And honestly, I’m not sure that I understand the reasons. It can’t be enough to say that we all secretly or not so secretly like rhyme (though I suspect that may be true), or that we prefer poems that get right to the point (because where would that leave Whitman, with his gab and his loitering, or Dickinson, with her slant truths?). Yet something in the clerihew’s collision of loud rhyme and pith and fanciful biography draws many of us back to it. Flipping through the Times each morning, I’m reading partly for the news and partly for potential clerihew kick-starts: General Petraeus: You slay us! or Newt, that unelectable galoot. I can’t quit the form, and I don’t much want to.

Bentley claimed to have invented the clerihew when he was sixteen years old and bored in a St. Paul’s chemistry class. Gavin Ewart, in his spirited introduction to The Complete Clerihews, sets Bentley’s age at eighteen. Whatever the case, the man whose middle name would one day become a dictionary entry was still a kid. (Years later, his son Nicolas would write: “I think it gave him more pleasure than anything else he achieved in life to see the word ‘clerihew’ . . . enshrined in the Oxford Dictionary as part of our language.”) The famous first clerihew—which, in Ewart’s judgment, was never bettered by Bentley—reads as follows:

Sir Humphry Davy
Detested gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered Sodium.

(When the poem was published in 1905 as part of Biography for Beginners, Bentley changed “Detested” to “Abominated.” It’s a good revision: “Abominated” is a funny word; plus, it chimes nicely with “odium” and “Sodium.”)

And so the form was established: four lines, comprising a name, a line that rhymes off of the name, and one more couplet. It seems almost too easy. And yet, according to Ewart, “Nobody much except Bentley has ever written really good clerihews.” (Ewart cherry-picks an uninspired effort from Auden to prove his point. But Auden’s Academic Graffiti, part of which was published in the May 8, 1971 issue of The New Yorker, also contains gems like this one: “Lord Byron / Once succumbed to a Siren— / His flesh was weak, / Hers Greek.”) May I report that my students, at the University of Washington and the University of Michigan, have written really good clerihews? They respond to Bentley’s invention with genuine enthusiasm, constructing verses that take on politicians and sports figures and reality TV stars (three categories that are rapidly collapsing into one). And some of their clerihews are wonderfully savage.

“The classical clerihew,” Ewart writes, “is free from malice. . . . The clerihew could easily be used for satire, and even satire of great bitterness, but as far as I know it never has been.” I’ve challenged my students, and myself, to write clerihews of great bitterness—about Aurora murderer James Holmes, about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And I’ve imagined clerihews that contain as much tonal variation as a Dream Song. (Ewart describes the tone of the clerihew as “both civilized and dotty”—but if Berryman can reverse course six or eight times in a Dream Song, shouldn’t we be able to rattle expectations several times in a clerihew?) Perhaps a few readers will want to post their own attempts in the Comments box.

Happy birthday, E. C. Bentley. And thanks, everyone. It’s great to be back.

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