How good is your clerihew game? If you can be quirky and funny without being mean or obscene, you might enjoy writing clerihews.
When first introduced at the turn of the last century, these clever little rhyming puns were all the rage. The best clerihews are crafted around a tidbit of recognizable truth; nonsense doesn’t pack the same punch.
Clerihews can be used as an exercise to get your creative juices flowing. The humor can be gossipy, obvious, or obscure—your choice. If it makes you think, and then makes you chuckle, it’s well done.
What Is a Clerihew?
Usually created specifically to poke fun at a person, clerihews are short, humorous, irreverent quatrains—four line poems, with an AABB rhyming scheme. Their creator, Edmund Clerihew Bentley, called them “baseless biography,” which is also the title of his third collection, published in1939.
In 1905, Bentley published a collection of his poems, Biography for Beginners, the pseudonym E. Clerihew, with illustrations by his friend G. K. Chesterton. That’s why they’re called clerihews instead of bentleys.
Who Was Edmund Clerihew Bentley?
Born July 10, 1875 in London, England, Edmund Clerihew Bentley, also known as E.C. Bentley and E. Clerihew, was a British journalist, poet, and fiction writer best known for inventing the clerihew and other light verse. He died on March 30, 1956 at the age of 80.
Bentley wrote his first clerihew as a 16-year-old student at St. Paul’s School in London. His science teacher was Humphry Davy, a renowned experimental chemist and physicist who invented the miner’s safety lamp, which is called the Davy lamp.
Bentley’s first clerihew was about his teacher. It read:
Sir Humphry Davy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.
From there, Bentley went to Oxford to study law. Not long after graduating Oxford with a law degree, Bentley decided he preferred journalism and switched careers. He spent much of his career running the editorial page of the Daily Telegraph. In his lifetime, he published three clerihew collections.
In addition to journalism and poetry, he wrote numerous short stories and a best-selling detective novel, Trent’s Last Case (1913), followed by Trent’s Own Case in 1936 with co-author Warner Allen, and Trent Intervenes in 1938, a collection of short detective stories.
Each year on July 10, E.C. Bentley’s birthday is celebrated as National Clerihew Day. While you won’t find fireworks or special foods, you can celebrate by reading clerihew poems or writing your own.
Clerihews are all about creativity and humor, so have fun with it! Writing clerihew poems could also be a class project for any age group.
Edmund Clerihew Bentley may have been the first to introduce this form of narrative poetry, but it quickly became popular and many other authors joined in the fun.
Sir Francis Bacon
When their lordships asked BaconEdmund Clerihew Bentley
How many bribes he had taken
He had at least the grace
To get very red in the face.
HannibalEdmund Clerihew Bentley
It was rather disconcerting for Hannibal
When he was introduced to a cannibal
Who expressed the very highest opinion
Of cold pickled Carthaginian.
BiographyEdmund Clerihew Bentley
The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.
To the Poetry Editor of the New YorkerW. H. Auden
Is Robert Lowell
Better than Noel
William CobbettG. K. Chesterton
Whenever William Cobbett
Saw a hen-roost, he would rob it.
He posed as a British Farmer,
But knew nothing about Karma.
How To Write a Clerihew
Composed of only four lines, clerihew poems are short, punchy, humorous verses. They don’t typically have a title. The beauty of the clerihew is accessibility. It’s an easy introduction to making poems that almost anyone can understand, and it’s fun.
1. Pick a Subject
Clerihews are usually about a person, but not always and not necessarily a real person. The first line contains the person’s name or the subject of the verse.
For example, you could write about a character like Obi-Wan Kenobi, a real person like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, or a subject like biography.
If you’re interested in writing a publishable poem, choose a famous person or character and make sure your poem has a grain of truth people will recognize.
Here’s a topical example about Lin Manuel-Miranda, Hamilton’s lead performer:
Lin Manuel-MirandaDaniel Galef
is able to pander
to theatre nerds and civics nerds alike by rapping with passion and verve
about the Federal Reserve.
2. Make it AABB
There’s only one hard and fast rule: AABB couplets. The first two lines rhyme and the second two lines rhyme.
3. Make a Point
The second line sets up the premise and says something about the subject. Make it rhyme with the first line. It doesn’t have to be true, or even make sense.
3. Add Context
The third and fourth lines add context to your premise, like the punchline to a joke. They should rhyme, but do not have to rhyme with the first two lines.
4. Make it Funny
The best clerihews are clever and sometimes sarcastic. They’re not typically insulting or mean-spirited. Writing humor can seem intimidating at first, but you’ll get the hang of it with a little practice.
5. Make it Unpredictable
The uneven meter makes the form easy to write and adds to the whimsical charm. Lines may be of any length, from a single word to ten or more.
“Metrical clumsiness is very much a desideratum,” comedian Stephen Fry wrote in The Ode Less Travelled. “Indeed, it is considered very bad form for a clerihew to scan.”
6. Don’t Overthink It
Paul Ingram, owner of Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City and modern day clerihew master, says “If it takes more than two minutes to think up, it isn’t going to work.”
Clerihew Day is a prime opportunity to exercise your imagination and jumpstart your creativity. Writing clever poetry helps you consider familiar scenarios from new angles. Comedy is often a matter of seeing mundane things from a different perspective or adding an unexpected twist.
Clerihew poems about today’s famous people would make effective memes for social media, a new use for an old style. Try it!