A bookseller’s nightmare is staring at an empty store, hoping a customer appears. To pass the time, some play solitaire, solve crosswords or scan publishers’ catalogs. Paul Ingram writes clerihews.
“Cleri-whose?” you may ask. These are poems, four-line light verses notable for their sly, sometimes bawdy humor.
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Clerihews adhere to a very specific structure: The first line must be the name of a well-known person; the second line rhymes at irregular rhythm and length; and another rhyming couplet completes the mockery. So, for example, as Ingram writes:
Drank a Harvey Wallbanger,
Which hindered her goal
Of birth control.
Clerihews were invented by the English crime writer, E. C. (Edmund Clerihew) Bentley as a 16-year-old at St. Paul’s School in London. His first published clerihews appeared in 1905. They were written in reaction to excessive naughtiness in limericks. Bentley, who hung around with a very religious crowd that included author G.K. Chesterton, didn’t realize, ironically, that it was just as possible to compose a naughty clerihew. Ingram has scattered several such verses among the approximately 125 poems in his new book, “The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram.”
Ingram, 67, called “Iowa’s literary tastemaker” by the Des Moines Register, has been the book buyer at Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City since 1989. The town is home to the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has produced numerous Pulitzer Prize winners, and has been named one of UNESCO’s seven”Cities of Literature.”
Though he only began writing clerihews about 20 years ago, Ingram traces his facility for writing them to growing up in a house of rhymers. His mother, father and brother “could rhyme anything. We would never sing the right words to songs we’d hear but would always change the lyrics. And my brother and I would make the rhymes as scatological as we could,” he said.
Ingram likes the clerihew format for “the freedom of mocking the beloved” and “the silliness of rhyme pushed to its snapping point,” he said. He claims the process of writing a clerihew is involuntary; they arrive in his mind spontaneously in quick “Tourette-like explosions.”. He offered a recent eruption during a phone interview:
Left this mortal coil
And even Holmes
Could not find his bones.
After submitting the clerihews to publishers 15 years ago and having them rejected, Ingram cast the lot into old boxes. Bruce J. Miller, an academic press sales representative, saved them from oblivion. Miller talked them up to Ice Cube Press’ publisher, Steve Semken, who offered to publish them. Ingram then scoured his home and found the damp, moldy lode in his basement. Miller’s wife, Julia Anderson-Miller, illustrated the book.
“I like to think my illustrations gave a wink and a nod to what Paul was writing,” she said.
Ingram pokes fun at a range of cultural figures, including Col. Sanders, Lady Gaga, Forrest Gump and Miley Cyrus. More than 35 writers and poets come in for ribbing, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Sylvia Plath and Paul Auster among them.
Besides Chesterton, more recent clerihew practitioners include British satirist Craig Brown and W.H. Auden, whose clerihews appeared in “Academic Graffiti.”
Ingram is not surprised that clerihew devotees tend to be English or Anglophiles like Auden.
“I’ve hardly met an Englishman who didn’t know what a clerihew is,” he says, “but hardly an American who did.”
Tom Mullaney is a freelance arts reporter and blogger at ArtsandAbout.com.
“The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram”
By Paul Ingram, Ice Cube, 144 pages, $19.95
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