Adding a Little Mystery to the Clerihew

Editor's Note: A clerihew is a poem that has four lines. The first two rhyme and the last two rhyme. This is a rhyme scheme of A-A-B-B. The first line is always the name of a person or character.

One fateful day in 1890, an English schoolboy sat listening to a lecture on chemistry with a bored air and a blank sheet of paper in front of him. Inspiration struck, and he penned the immortal words

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

The schoolboy's name was Edmund Clerihew Bentley, and the form of poetry he invented that day is known as the clerihew.

E. C. Bentley, as you should know, grew up to write Trent's Last Case (1912), one of the most important detective novels of the era. His best friend at school was G. K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown and illustrator of Biography for Beginners (1905), a collection of Bentley's clerihews.

Clerihews, though, may be of more than historical interest to the modern writer of short mystery fiction. As a literary form, they are ideal for mysterious subjects -- and, considered practically, they're one line shorter and sell for the same price as that traditional workhorse of poetic filler, the limerick.

Frances Stillman, in The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary, defines a clerihew as "a humorous pseudo-biographical quatrain, rhymed as two couplets, with lines of uneven length more or less in the rhythm of prose.... The name of the individual who is the subject of the quatrain usually supplies the first line." Let the subject be an author or character from the world of mystery, and you have a mystery clerihew.

Bentley himself, the first clerihewist, wrote a mystery clerihew about the first mystery writer:

Edgar Allan Poe
Was passionately fond of roe.
He always liked to chew some
When writing anything gruesome.

The two examples given -- which probably define the form more clearly than any dictionary definition -- show a couple of features of the clerihew that need to be considered. The first is that any correspondence between the content of the poem and accurate biographical detail is purely coincidental.

The second is that, even at its best, the clerihew does not give rise to great poetry. I would go so far as to say that a clerihew that is not pointless is going to be forced, and any editor who expects otherwise is bound to be disappointed in the submissions that cross his desk.

Take the following examples from my own pen:

The priest Father Brown
Has gained wide renown,
Not for prayerbooks or hyminals,
But for collaring criminals.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Learned the meaning of "loyal."
When he killed off Holmes at Reichenbach,
His fans all cried, "We'd like him back!"

The first I sold to Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine. The second I couldn't give away (until now). And though I may be too close to judge, I can't see that the one is any better -- or worse -- than the other. It should be very encouraging to realize that you don't need to be a good poet to write a good clerihew. Ask yourself whether you are up to the level of W. H. Auden, a fellow with no little poetic talent who nonetheless committed the following in public:

My first name, Wystan,
Rhymes with Tristan,
But -- O dear! -- I do hope
I'm not quite such a dope.

Keep in mind, also, that the high-water mark of clerihews remains the first ever written, on Sir Hamilton Davy, and you should have the confidence to try your hand at a form whose best examples are, for whatever reason, not much better than its average examples.

One variation on mystery clerihews is something I call the mystery cleriview: a clerihew that is a review of a mystery novel. An example, complete with title, is my review of Sue Grafton' s L is for Lawless:

"L of a Book"

Sue Grafton
Knows her craft, 'n'
She gets better
With each letter.

As you can see, one of the properties of a cleriview is that it doesn't much matter whether the reviewer has read the book.

This cleriview also illustrates another useful technique: using a title. It's not for me to say that "L of a Book" is clever or witty, but at least it indicates the book under review. The titles of the above Father Brown and Conan Doyle clerihews are "The Roamin' Detective" and "Vox Populi," respectively (which may also help to explain the unsold nature of the latter).

If you do dogger out a few clerihews, where should you send them? I've found Murderous Intent to be very welcoming toward them, but there are countless markets that pay two or five dollars for short poems. The more popular the clerihew's subject, of course, the more likely a general interest magazine would buy it. Good luck, and keep in mind this wise if dated word of advice from the introduction of Bentley's Biography for Beginners:

The Art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about Maps,
But Biography is about Chaps.

Tom Kreitzberg

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