The epitaph is lapidary verse; that is, a gravestone inscription (not to be confused with the epigraph). It is one of the two major short forms of satirics, the other being the epigram which has been defined as terse verse with a cutting edge. The clerihew, a particular type of epigram, was invented by E[dmund] Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956). It is a quatrain in dipodic [two-beat] meters rhyming aabb, the first line of which is both the title and the name of a person:
SIGMUND FREUD AND KARL JUNG
When his ego
Sailed to Montego.
Became more annoyed
When his id
Fled to Madrid.
Grew most annoyed
When his superego
Tried to Montenegro.
Was nearly destroyed
When his alter-ego
Showed up in Oswego.
Found himself among
Of various stripes.
-- Lewis Turco
In 2014, the history of the Clerihew took a curious twist. According to its publisher, the collection of The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram, with illustrations by Julia Anderson Miller, [North Liberty, IA: Ice Cube Press, 2014, 146 pp., incl. 128 illus., trade paper, ISBN 97818888160772], by the “Legendary bookseller at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa, Paul Ingram,” came to light after having been “long lost,” apparently in the author’s basement. In his Introduction Ingram says, “I started writing Clerihews about twenty years ago. The process seemed involuntary, rather quick Tourette’s-like explosions bound by rhyme and form. I would speak a name and the rest of the poem would spill from me without careful thought.” Oddly enough, Ingram’s collection begins with this clerihew:
Carl Gustav Jung
Was impressively hung,
Which sorely annoyed
The good Dr. Freud.
Wikipedia says, “E. C. Bentley (10 July 1875 – 30 March 1956) was a popular English novelist and humorist of the early twentieth century, and the inventor of the clerihew, an irregular form of humorous verse on biographical topics. One of the best known is this (1905):
Sir Christopher Wren
Said, ‘I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul's.’”
Perhaps in my definition above I ought to have said simply “podic” rather than “dipodic,” because Clerihew’s practice was to allow his lines three, or as many as four beats if an author such as Ingram wishes; even I allowed myself three stresses in some of the lines of my examples above. But the inventor of this form was even less strict than the Wikipedia definition, for sometimes Clerihew didn’t write about people:
The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.
And sometimes personal opinion is more important than biography:
What I like about Clive
Is that he is no longer alive.
There is a great deal to be said
For being dead.
On occasion fiction overcomes even personal opinion in Clerihew’s epigrams:
Edward the Confessor
Slept under the dresser.
When that began to pall,
He slept in the hall.
Clerihew even allowed himself at times to be judgmental:
It was a weakness of Voltaire's
To forget to say his prayers,
And one which to his shame
He never overcame.
But this is a lesson, not an encyclopedia entry, and the book under consideration is certainly a worthy descendent of the work of the English journalist who invented the form, which Ingram stretches to the breaking point on occasion:
Used to fart when she peed,
A fact well known
To every Samoan.
Of course, the object of derision in a clerihew must be famous, or at least well-known, if the verselet is going to be effective:
Picked at his scrotal hair,
And found a weevil
In his Flowers of Evil.
Baudelaire’s reputation has stood the test of time, but others of Ingram’s targets may not be quite so lucky:
Told Donald Trump
“You know I like you
We have the same IQ.
Although Clerihew was a journalist, it was not his practice to be historically accurate, as Ingram is well aware:
With the nether smells
Of H. G. Wells.
Put cheese in her pants,
Both Swiss and Havarti,
When she used to party.
In Jul of 2012 Jack Foley wrote me,
Here are some probably objectionable [Clerihews] by Jonathan Williams:
could really holler!
On those odd, ur-Freudian occasions when she took it up the butt,
she often hit fortissimo high-C and commenced doing the "Danube Strut."
in photographs looks a bloody blank Czech.
His music, as it unfurls,
appeals mostly to squirrels.
even played the piano when he pissed.
It was odd to see his piano stool dripping
during performances of Annes de Pelerinage that were
is arguably better than zucchini.
But a pound of spinach
could write a better symphony than Zdenek Fibich.
Thus Jonathan Williams from his "Clerihews." Williams comments,
“The clerihew was invented in 1890 by Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who was a schoolboy of sixteen at St. Paul's in London when the divine numen of Orpheus struck him. His best one seems to me:
The digestion of Milton
Was unequal to Stilton.
He was only feeling so-so
When he wrote Il Penseroso.
“He never got any better than that, and few people have ever managed to equal him, though such as Auden, John Sparrow, Constant Lambert, James Elroy Flecker, Maurice Hare, and Gavin Ewart have tried. I can recall one sublime effort:
“This was written by the now-obscured World War One poet William Norman Ewer (1885-1976). It makes me quote the equally sublime rebuttal by Leo Rosten, (as someone says,) the Yiddishist:
“E.C. Bentley went on to Oxford, was a lifelong friend of G.K. Chesterton, wrote editorials for The Daily Telegraph for more than twenty years, and is remembered as the author of the detective novel Trent's Last Case.”
Turco, that crazy fellow Lewis
will sometimes curse and even beshrew us
but mind your manners, you old schoolmarms,
this man wrote The Book of Forms.
— Jack Foley
Wouldn't it have worked out better if I'd written The Book of Farms?
Jack said, “I have some sort of precedent. From an old song:
“Just a Love Nest
Cozy and warm
Like a dove nest
Down on a farm
“Here's one for old Jonathan:
Jonathan Williams, lamented, gone,
Had pages he put his pen upon
Now he's in his grave, out he canna step —
He depends on people like me for his rep.”
Of all these examples, the only one that looks like a Clerihew is the “old song” Jack quotes above, but even that is not a precise Clerihew if the current definition of the term is that the first line is only the subject’s name. Very few of the examples above, including those by Bentley, inventor of the form (which has clearly evolved since he wrote his first), are true Clerihews. Here is a Clerihew for Jack:
Thought he was holy,
But found he was not
When it got too hot.
-- Lewis Turco
And here is his epitaph from Wesli Court’s Epitaphs for the Poets2:
R.I.P. JACK FOLEY
August 9, 1940
Here lies Jack Foley
When he composed faster
It was a disaster.
-- Wesli Court
Jack himself clearly knows how to write a true Clerihew; here are a few by him:
doesn’t play the piahno[,]
but she sings with her verses
even when they are curses
Mary Ann Sullivan
is better for you than Serutan[;]
She makes verses and videos that tick-
even though you’re a rather lapsed Cat’lic.
will never annoy ya[;]
He’s clever and smart and dutiful
and careful to show why we pity the beautiful
(The second couplet turns into prose like those of Johathan Williams; they are not dipodic.)
has a song he’s sung
on pages and stages:
he writes for the ages[.]
Write four or five (or more) Clerihews on your friends’ names, or on any names you choose.
The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Including Odd and Invented Forms, Revised and Expanded Edition by Lewis Putnam Turco, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England (www.UPNE.com) , 2012 • 384 pp. 3 illus. 5 x 7 1/2" Reference & Bibliography / Poetry 978-1-61168-035-5, paperback.