Poetry Challenge 7: Festival of Clerihews


Background to the Challenge

Recently I took part in a very enjoyable six-week writing contest in which the challenge was different for each week. During the poetry week I was introduced for the first time to these snicker-worthy little clusters known as ‘Clerihews.’

The outcome of the contest was distressing to me on that particular week (though I approved of the judging in every other respect.) The short poetry category was taken by a haiku I didn’t like; it paired the word ‘scream’ with the word ‘beautiful’ in the effort to describe the colored leaves of fall, an effect I considered penny-dreadful cheap, and too easily reproducible.

The sweet shudder

The lovely horror

The brilliant depravity

The riddling plain

The engaging tedium

The dull point

See? I could go on but I fear for my soul.

Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure I had the best clerihew, and not even a mention did I receive, dear friends!

The others who attempted the clerihew form were not brief enough for wit. They tried to get too many details in. And most importantly, they failed at the essential treatment, the special twist that the clerihew brings to the famous subject it treats.

This twist boils down to catching a famous person in some ridiculous, faulty or mundane situation. (The situation is always fictional.)

While it’s never fun to be overlooked, I don’t find that I’m really troubled. This happens regularly and inevitably as part of the vagarious fortunes of literary life. What I really missed is the fellowship in wit I hoped for: such as that which Bentley and his schoolfellows enjoyed.

Thus I propose a clerihew festival.

What Is A Clerihew and How Does One Write It?

The clerihew is named after the school-aged youth who invented it (Edmund Clerihew Bentley.) His famous inaugural verse in this style is as follows:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”

The fault here is duplicity. The silly situation is that Sir Chistopher is “caught” in a trivial social lie that plays on the great work for which he is famous. (To my knowledge, this incident did not actually happen. These biographical verses are not actually biographical.)

If you get the very affordable Biography for Beginners by Bentley (illustrations by a young G. K. Chesterton) pay special attention to the “Index of Psychology” at the very end. Here is where fully 3/4ths of the wit resides. (It’s a hyperbolic, impudent, turn-of-the century-schoolboy kind of wit, however.)

So for instance, the above-mentioned Wren comes into the index under the various psychological traits:

CONDUCT, disingenuous
HYPOCRISY, calculated
LIE, bouncing, circulation of
“NOBLESSE OBLIGE,” disregard of apothegm
OPENNESS, want of
QUICKENING, spiritual, need of
SATANSIM, revolting display of
WORLD, the next, neglect of prospects in
Y.M.C.A., unfitness for

and others which I will allow you to discover for yourself. This wit could only arise from a society in which religion and morality were normal and expected currents of life.

Such, dear friends, is the foam of that deep current.

The Challenge, its Details and Rules

So here’s my poetry challenge for the next two weeks: to pull together a festival of clerihews. Since we are those who immerse ourselves into that normative stream which our contemporaries largely disparage, let us indulge in the froth to which we are thereby entitled.

As an example, here is my contest entry. You will notice that I used an “Index of Psychology”-style entry as my title.

PALATE, discerning, lack thereof

Lord Adam,
Told his wife, “Madam,
Provided my dinner ain’t late
I don’t give a damn what you put on my plate.”

To be perfectly honest, I left ‘Lord’ out of the original. I’m still wavering on that point.

Rules of the Clerihew:

1.The rhyme scheme is always AABB
2. The meter is irregular, as is line length
3. The subject is famous
4. The famous subject’s name is the first A in the rhyme scheme
5. Although faults are treated, the tone is never bitter. No social commentary.
6. Silly or mundane situation exemplifies a fault
7. Anachronism or other out-of-bourne representations

As always, I recommend reading examples before attempting one’s own. Some literary commentary is available “out there” but I find that some of it is more perceptive than others.

We will post our clerihews and revel in them  and in our fellowship with the young Chesterton and his fellows – two weeks from today on January 26th, 2016. As always, challenges remain open forever. This will be less of a workshop and more of a showcase than previous challenges have been.

See you then!


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