On clerihews

Sir Humphry Davy

Abominated gravy.

He lived in the odium

Of having discovered sodium.

So goes the first recorded clerihew. For those of you who are uninitiated – which is to say, practically everyone of sound mind and body – a clerihew is a four-line poem with an AABB rhyme scheme. Named for its owner, former Telegraph journalist Edmund Clerihew Bentley, the clerihew is a comic poetic form with deliberately exaggerated features and a single subject, which must be a person of some note.

There is no single agreed set of rules for what defines a clerihew and indeed the inventor of the form seemed somewhat fluid with the format himself. To most minds that can be bothered to think on the subject, the following seem to be stable features of a true clerihew.

  • As mentioned above, it must be four lines only with the first and second line rhyming, the third and fourth likewise.
  • The first line must contain the name of the subject; indeed, their name should always come at the end of the first line. In many cases the person’s name, or their title and name, is the whole of the first line.
  • The rhymes should be deliberately contrived. Part of the reason for making sure the person’s name comes at the end of the first line is to try and make for a contrived rhyme of the first couplet. The use of foreign words and hyperbaton to contrive these rhymes is fully supported.
  • The metre and foot should be inconsistent, exaggeratedly so. Lines should be of different length so that the rhythm is disturbed.

Also

  • Wikipedia says that “clerihews are not satirical or abusive, but they target famous individuals and reposition them in an absurd, anachronistic or commonplace setting” but then fails to provide a citation for that assertion.

I quite like the idea of a clerihew being gently satirical. There’s a lot you can say about someone in three badly written lines – pointing out their foibles, highlighting inconsistent or hypocritical behaviour, or just having a little gentle fun at their expense. When I write clerihews (and I confess to them being a secret fascination of mine) I tend to write them because some story of that nature in the press or popular media has caught my eye or ear.

As an art form, the clerihew has utterly failed to catch on. Apart from Bentley’s originals, other writers have from time to time tried their hand at them – notable fellows too, such as W. H. Auden. Personally I think it’s because they’re so nonsensical. People expect them to be a serious poem with proper rhymes and lines of a similar length. The absurd features don’t make sense to someone who isn’t expecting a comic verse, and then they very much miss the point of the verse.

Nevertheless – clerihews are great fun to write, assuming you think of writing poetry as being fun at all. Once you start and your unconscious mind takes over, you realise that you’re devising ‘proper’ lines of poetry, lines that scan and flow correctly. It’s a great creative writing exercise, having to engage your brain to write something bad well, and the form means that you can come up with the germ of a good clerihew in the space of a ten minute train ride.


Oh, did I mention that I write them myself? Well, I do, and they’re uncommonly bad…

 

Dappy
Was never nearly as happy
As when lecturing women on their sexual proclivities
Whilst indulging in exhibitionist activities

 The first clerihew I wrote, inspired by a story in the media. As far as this one goes, there are two headlines you need to know about. The first is, “Ofcom receives complaints about Dappy’s sexist comments” . And the second is, “Celebrity Big Brother: Dappy pokes Jasmine with his erect penis”.

 

Jason Orange
Thought he was safe because nothing rhymes with ‘orange’
I wonder if he’ll join Tenacious D as singer to replace Jack?
You know what they say – Orange is the new Black.

 It’s incredible how I managed to combine excellent topicality (the TV show ‘Orange is the new Black’) with a supreme lack of topicality (Tenacious D, a band who haven’t had a hit since the same week as Showaddywaddy’s first single. Look ‘em up on Wikipedia, kids).

 

Mark Reckless
Denounced by his party for being feckless
Avoiding Grant Shapps’ call by hiding in his garage
So he could defect to UKIP and join Nigel Farage

This one really serves no purpose but to annoy Nigel Farage. If you’re one of the people who pronounces ‘garage’ as ‘garr-idge’ then your brain will want to pronounce ‘Farage’ as ‘Farr-idge’ and that would annoy Nigel Farridge, a lot. Obviously if you pronounce some both of them to end in ‘-ahhhge’, then I’m just some git that overthinks things, but hey, what’s new.

 

Brooks Newmark
Entrapped by the Sunday Mirror in a supposed “news” lark
Thought he was sexting with a twentysomething floozie
As if a twentysomething wouldn’t be more choosy

 I look forward to seeing The Sunday Mirror defend this one to our brand new press standards agency. Quite how they can defend what is a clear case of entrapment and call it public interest if, as is being reported, they tried to entrap half a dozen of his colleagues first, I have no idea. They’ve already apologised for stealing photos from the Internet to perpetrate their sting.

 

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