Clerihews: Bite-Size Literature | Exploring the Cerebral Playfulness of The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram

Paul Ingram at Prairie Lights Bookstore

Stumbling off the sidewalk and into Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, I asked the clerk at the cash register if Paul Ingram was in. “You just missed him!” she said. I could not believe my luck. Clutching a review copy of The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram (Ice Cube Press), I had expected to find the author in his familiar haunt, and now the author himself was “lost” in the lunchtime melee of Dubuque Street. I sat myself in the comfy chair of the poetry corner and contemplated my options. 

What a strange little book of poems, neither regular recipe nor extra crispy:

Colonel Sanders
Often panders
To the tasteless many
Just to make a penny.

These bite-sized poems roam all over the historical landscape, tackling figures as diverse as Euripides, Alice B. Toklas, and George W. Bush:

Dubya Bush
Had a brain like mush,
But could fly a plane
With that worthless brain.

Some topics make you itch for an encyclopedia.

Paul Ingram knows a lot, and though his clerihews are simple in form and expression, the cerebral playfulness behind them is anything but. They are crude and smart all at once, kind of like graffiti in a good history or literature department’s lavatory.

To be in Prairie Lights is to be surrounded by the spirit of Paul Ingram.  Elizabeth McCracken, in her foreword to Paul’s book, says, “I imagine he has introduced more readers to their favorite books than any other bookseller.” 

Having missed the man in person, I decide to summon his spirit from the walls of the bookstore. I cast my burnt chicken bones to a quiet square of carpeting, and suddenly Paul’s disembodied head appears floating in a silvery cloud in front of a volume of GeorgTrakl.


Georg Trakl
Lived a life of debacle,
Drugs and mania
And schizophrenia.

And clean up those chicken bones, for God’s sake!

Me: In a minute! I’m here on an important fact-finding mission. Just what is a clerihew?

Paul: A four-line piece of short-form verse, of course. As I say in the book’s intro: “The clerihew was first devised by English crime writer E. C. (Edmund Clerihew) Bentley, who felt the limerick had fallen into disfavor with its nearly obligatory naughtiness. . . . The [clerihew’s] somewhat complex rhyme scheme is AABB. The first line must include the name of a well- or ill-known person. The second line must rhyme and mock. The second couplet should mock and further mock.”

Me: Did Donald Justice teach you about them?

Paul: Disrespectful; they are much too silly for Justice.

Me: Where did you learn about them?

Paul: Auden published a volume of them called Academic Graffiti. I saw a couple in a lit mag. Here’s one by Opal Nations:

Helen Keller
Had only a smeller
But through her teacher’s zeal,
Learned to talk like a seal.

Me: Talk about disrespect! Anyway, why do you write them?

Paul: I was seized in a kind of clerihew mania. I wrote a few hundred in maybe six weeks. I see them more as neurological rather than artistic. Or at least with a neurological element.

Me: Like metrical Tourette syndrome, maybe?

Paul: That’s how I see it.

Me: I could see much of poetry in that light.

Paul: But I’ve been able lately to work them a little more slowly. And they disappear like dreams.

Me: So you lost the manuscript and then you found it? Or is the title a metaphor, because they disappear like dreams?

Paul: They are hard to get back if you don’t write something down. The title is literal but the metaphor throbs beneath it.  Maybe inside it.

Me: I mentioned Donald Justice. You say he was too dignified for clerihews. I think of Anthony Hecht’s fooling with double dactyl in Jiggery Pokery, a decidedly light volume of poetry on the surface.  But beneath the surface . . .

Paul: Hecht is incredible at those. Some were unprintably naughty. Some were bad.

Me: I sat through a reading of them.

Paul: I will never put anyone through that. I’d rather give a brief talk punctuated by clerihews.

Me: So your talk would be like Mark Twain lecturing and punctuating the talk with clerihews?

Paul: In a word, yes. Doubt if I’d be much like Mark Twain. I’d talk about the rhyme as the prize in the Cracker Jack box. I’d talk about forced mispronunciation.

Me: Mispronunciation as an element of the form?

Paul: As something welcome if it shows up:

Ralph Abernathy
Was full of empathy,
He used to get weepy
At the NAACP.

Me: Pronounced: enn double-ay seapy?

Paul: Yes. It’s great to make a French speaker mispronounce a French word. 

Me: So a clerihew must have the name of a notable person and an insult in it? For example, this would not be a clerihew: 

I was Wisconsin born
And Wisconsin bred
And when I die
I’ll be Wisconsin dead.

Paul: Wrong rhyme scheme. And is the mocked name “I” or “Wisconsin?”

Me: Wrong syntax for a clerihew?

Paul: Think so.

Me: Darn. But I like it.

Paul: Me, too.

In every ear of every human
Sebaceous glands secrete cerumen.

Me: Hmm. I’m formulating a pun using President Johnson and . . . Johnson Wax.    Very smart, very scientific . . . sebaceous glands . . . Roz Chast would like that.

Paul: Which President Johnson?

Me: Lyndon Beans.

Paul: Lotta stuff there.

Me: Yes, I am amazed by the layers that support these little poems.


Lyndon Johnson
Carried Wisconsin
And tossed cold water
On Barry Goldwater

Me: Pretty good! You just made that one up, didn’t you?

Paul: No cerumen, though.

Me: That would be a challenge. Unless you take liberties with the rhyme scheme.  But the rules of pronunciation sound strict for clerihews.

Alfred E. Newman
Picked his cerumen . . .

I do a lot of forced mispronunciations: Ralph Abernathy, Flaubert. My motto is make ’em say “Prowst.”

Me: You could mispronounce the next word if you say “Proost.”

Paul: The reader makes the choice.

Me: I like that. Who knows what they would say in Scotland?

Paul: Who knows. “Baudelaire” rhymes with “scrotal hair.”

Me: Okay, that’s way too French for me.

Paul: Not if you’re French. When a customer asks for “Prowst,” I treat them extra well. Make them pronounce Virginia “Woof” like a dog noise, or rhyming with “roof:”

Quentin Bell
Would never tell
Of a night on the roof
With Virginia Woolf.

Make the snoots mispronounce. The rhyme is the toy in the Cracker Jack box.