Some Help for the Clerihew Challenge: Need Clerihews Be Inspired?

Leah mentioned that she “lacked inspiration” for the clerihew challenge. I thought I would address the issue of clerihews and inspiration. The questions that occur to me are,

  1. Need proper poems be inspired?
  2. Are clerihews proper poems?
  3. If the answer to either question is ‘no’ or ‘unknown’, then what is our experience regarding clerihews and inspiration?

Well, first. Need proper poems be inspired?

Here’s what Socrates has to say about poets and inspiration. At his famous trial, he is describing his search for someone wiser than himself. He says he found wisdom in poetry, so he went to talk with poets, hoping to find them even wiser than their words.

After the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be instantly detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them – thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to confess the truth, but I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. Then I knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things but do not understand the meaning of them. The poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians. (Socrates has already explained that he found men foolish because they thought themselves wise; he alone thinks himself as lacking in wisdom and his method is founded upon exposing ignorance rather than proving propositions.)

So we certainly have good authority for considering inspiration necessary to poetry.

And what is Socrates’ evidence? Simply that poets in their everyday discourse are not able to produce the wisdom that appears in their poetry. I think this is similar to encountering the profound moral feeling that is present in great novels – and then finding out that their authors were somewhat dissolute or damaged morally, in their personal lives. (Cf. Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas.)

The inevitable conclusion is that a writer who is writing poetry or novels is thinking differently when they write those things, than when they are talking to people and trying to philosophize. (Might someone be a philosopher and a poet, too? I would assume so – but they are different functions since people can have only one and not the other.)

What is the nature of this “different thinking”?

One might say, “Well, a primitive man like Socrates would automatically see divine agency in everything; as moderns we know that these things arise from the unconscious or the subconscious.”

Or, if one is post-modern, one could say with equal ease that these are currents that pass from one person to another. One need not resort to extra-human explanations in order to suppose that this “different thinking” is extra-individual.

Or if one is less philosophical and more practical in one’s thinking, one might simply say that one “enters a creative mindset” and then exits it again.

However it comes about, though, I think we all know what it feels like. Its effectiveness and authority is the very reason that Leah complained of getting no inspiration as she was trying to write. One may be jotting down things, and trying ideas and connections – but then there’s that moment when you know the poem has begun, and something is “flowing” or you’ve “tapped into something.” Something is arising within you so that you are writing, not what you know or believe, but what has come upon you. You cannot force it – you must treat it with respect – and you must acknowledge it, or you feel that you have betrayed something essential to your dignity and faith.

It feels like inspiration, this “different thinking.” It doesn’t feel like something alien, to be sure. It’s highly personal. It’s highly communional. It’s greatly human. And yet it feels as if a divine breath is enlarging one’s speaking, making it fecund, making it ring, making it a “word of power.” One’s own personal divinity, then – one’s dedicated genius which is both of me and not by me.

And for us whose primary interest in poetry is that it be poetic, the poetry that we write without the benefit of this “different thinking” is uninteresting and drudgery. We don’t like to read it over afterwards.

Therefore, without insisting too much on a theory of how inspiration comes about, let us say that “poetic thinking” and other kinds of artistic “different thinking” are to be named “inspiration.” And let us say that we have indeed experienced this, and that the poetry with inspiration is pregnant with wisdom and power, and the poetry without inspiration is pedestrian and dull.

Inspiration is something which relates to me in a specific way – not as the Great God, whom I must obey implicitly, but as something which I must both surrender to, and direct.

(On this point, compare St. Paul: “…the spirits if the prophets are subject to the prophets.”)

What other evidence do we have? By nearly universal attestation, the poetry of the Bible is among the greatest the world has ever produced. And if inspiration exists, then this is inspired poetry. This is evidence, at least, that poetry is better for inspiration.

There is also the negative evidence of modern poetry. Schools of thought on what a poem is and how it is produced have mushroomed since World War I, when the world’s growing materialistic atheism dawned fully upon its own consciousness. All of these schools of thought are essentially scientistical.  They seek to explain the genesis of poetry in any mechanical way possible. One creates images with words. One explores the semantic range of a word. One makes connections. One thinks as one writes, rather than writing about previous thoughts. (This one is perhaps a veiled attempt to approach inspiration again, but the results are inevitably pedestrian.)

And what is the result of most of these schools? It is that poetry feels less and less like poetry. I think that is evidence enough to say, for our purposes, that inspiration is indeed necessary to poetry.

And if it is necessary to it, then perhaps it is part of its nature. Some things (such as a car factory to a car) are necessary to something else as causing it to come into being. But some things are necessary to others as inhering in them (like parents to children, or milk to milkshakes.) But which is inspiration to poetry?

Of the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, at least, we have some indication when Paul says that the letter kills but the spirit gives life. Some spirit, then, inheres in the inspired words. And if it were possible to somehow separate the words of scripture from their spirit, we would find the words just as dead – and indeed, given their greatness, far more deadly – than ordinary words. But the spirit that inheres in the words gives life. That is to say, when you read scripture as literature – to feed upon it and not to dissect it – then you find your whole spirit being nourished and coming to life. Even when the words are not particularly exciting or do not provoke some profound intellectual conclusion, this happens.

To the extent that our lesser inspiration is like this greater inspiration, I think it is fair to assume that the spirit – the living breath – that is the breath of the speaking of the word (that is to say, the inspiration) inheres in the poem, rather than just producing it.

Now since I’ve concluded that proper poetry does need inspiration, if a clerihew is a proper poem then obviously it needs inspiration. And yet there’s the fact of our experience. It wasn’t the same as writing about a body of water that symbolizes our feelings, was it? I know it wasn’t for me. That aesthetic channel into which we usually dip was simply no help at all, in writing clerihews.

So is the clerihew, perhaps, not a proper poem, and not meant to be? Is it, in the common distinction, merely verse?

Well, here’s the great thing about having determined ahead of time that inspiration inheres in the poem rather than merely producing it. Now we can turn that around and make inspiration the hallmark, the telltale, of the poem.

In fact, we can determine whether the clerihew is a poem by trying to find evidence of inspiration – of “different thinking” – in its genesis. Thankfully, we have a contemporary account of the original creation of the original clerihew.

According to the story, Edmund Clerihew Bentley was sitting in science class, and these lines popped into his head.

Sir Humphry Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

(‘Abominated’ was added later, substituted for the original “was not fond of.”)

Well this certainly looks, smells, and sounds like inspiration! But where is the word of power? The divine wisdom? The mantle of greatness? Obviously not here! As Leah has accurately described them, clerihews are “trivializing but not ill-humored.”

But let’s remember that the “different thinking” that produces a novel is distinct from that which produces a poem. The poem is primarily aesthetic, and the novel moral. (Not moralistic, but moral. I may try to get at that another time.)

So the mere presence of inspiration does not designate a poem – it only designates art. Shall we go ahead and define art right now as “inspired craft”?

Literature would then be “inspired craft composed in words,” and poetry would be, “inspired craft composed in words which are arranged in patterns for aesthetic effect.” More or less.

What is mere verse, then? Is it something which is arranged in those patterns that usually are dedicated to poetry, but which lacks inspiration? Or is it something which is arranged like poetry but is inspired toward an effect other than aesthetic? Say, humorous effect?

I think it is fair to say that “mere verse” is not inspired. For ‘verse’ is precisely that arrangement of words we referred to in the definition of poetry. If you have inspired verse, then, it must be poetry.

So if you have ‘mere’ verse, it must be lacking inspiration.

And clerihews are not lacking inspiration.

Therefore clerihews are not mere verse, but are inspired verse, and therefore they are poems.

Although we have answered both of our first question ‘yes’ – proper poems need inspiration, and clerihews are proper poems – I think it would still be helpful to explore our experience related to clerihews. Because we still have an unanswered question – not one of the original questions, but one that arose in the course of this exploration.

We have admitted that clerihews are inspired verse – but we also confessed that inspiration doesn’t seem to work for them in the same way it does for poems that aim at beauty, greatness, wisdom and power. By what is the clerihew inspired?

At this point, I want to talk about my personal experience in writing clerihews. I think mine are getting better as I go along, but I struggled with them at first. For me, the breakthrough came when I let go of any “ideas” associated with the ostensible subject.

In other words, you don’t write a clerihew about Sir Humphrey Davy. (This is evinced by the fact that you can enjoy the original clerihew without knowing anything about Sir Humphrey Davy – as I, in fact, don’t. Did he actually discover sodium? I have no idea.)

No, you write a clerihew about Sir Humphrey Davy’s name. This is precisely why clerihews aren’t bitter in tone – why they are either completely fictional, or fictionalizations of reality. You don’t write a clerihew about Karl Marx or Sarah Palin or Barack Obama; you write a clerihew about their names.

What is the inspired effect we want to cultivate, then? It is humorous, in fact – humor is a type of aesthetic effect, I believe – and the humor arises from the superimposition of this rhyming-game upon a subject of stature, with all the ideas people have of that subject. What clinches it is tongue-in-cheek effect in which one pretends, outrageously, to be quite intellectual or moral (in short, biographical) in one’s approach.

How do you tap into the inspiration needed to write a clerihew, then? Here’s my approximation of the process.

  1. Look at the possible rhymes for the name
  2. Pick the one that calls to you (but turn away from the voice that calls in beauty and toward the voice that calls in mirth)
  3. Put away your opinions of the person about whose name you are writing (or pick a person’s name of whom you have no opinion.)
  4. Start jotting
  5. Make the acquaintance of your Mirthful Muse.

Good luck.



  1. I do think that there is a certain wisdom attached to the ability to look at people, even famous people, non-ideologically. Outrageous or Hyperbolic humor helps us to do this.


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