Clerihew’s on First

Yet another GOODIE FROM GIL. Thank you Gil, for providing moral support and iced coffee while I sit around with my leg up and my brain a little dialed down.

In a recent interview (writes Gil Reavill) Woody Allen belched forth about his writing process in ways that struck a sympathetic note with me.


Here are a couple excerpts:

“What people who don’t write don’t understand is that they think you make up the line consciously — but you don’t. It proceeds from your unconscious.”

“The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself.”

This comes close to what I’ve experienced about writing.

1) “You,” the ego-locked soul pushing the pen, is not really the author in any credible sense. Instead, it’s what used to be called the Muse, what Mr. Allen calls the unconscious. Sentences and phrases tend to leap out fully-formed and pre-created, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus.


The byline is the biggest fiction there is. The greatest authors ever—Homer, Tu Fu, Shakespeare—are ciphers as individuals, to the degree that some people insist they never existed or didn’t even write their works.

2) At best, what you create is nothing more important than a diversion for yourself and others, a distraction from boredom or a way to excuse oneself from facing the howling void of the universe. Forget Art with a capital “A.” Forget literatoor. In other words, don’t take yourself or your work too seriously.

Doggerel fits the bill quite nicely. I indulge in it often and most of it never sees the light of day (thank the Lord, you might respond). Limericks, parodies, couplets, one-offs—and clerihews.

Here’s Wiki on the rules of writing the clerihew:

“A clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The first line is the name of the poem’s subject, usually a famous person put in an absurd light. The rhyme scheme is AABB, and the rhymes are often forced. The line length and meter are irregular. Bentley invented the clerihew in school and then popularized it in books. One of his 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.”

A few years back I entered the clerihew contest of the literary society in the village where we lived. I wrote a whole slew of them. (A cleri-slew, says Jean.) One of them won second prize, a gift certificate to a local bookstore that I never cashed in. It was an honor just to be nominated. Plus it was the Muse’s doing, not mine. Blame her. See if you can guess which of these took the silver.

Meeting Charlotte Brontë

I would say, “Enchanté,

“Your hero’s charismatic

“But who’s that in the attic?”


Emily Brontë

Wrote less than Dante

One book to four

Proving less is moor


Brontë, Anne

Youngest of the clan

Wrote ‘til she had blisters

But she’s still not her sisters


Moving on from the Bronte clan…

Charles Dickens

At injustice sickens

His muse quickens

And the plot thickens

Charles Dickens

Ken Kesey

Makes us uneasy

When he gets on the bus

And leaves without us


Raymond Chandler

Had a wife but he banned her

From reading his books

About killers and crooks

BK.1017.Nolan20A-- File Photo-- Jan. 13, 1987-- Raymond Chandler.  LA Library


Told of a sea roamer

The hero Ulysses

Who missed his wife’s kissies


The heretic Tyndale

Saw flames start to kindle

When he translated the Bible

And at the stake was held liable


Victor Hugo

Never drove a Yugo

He preferred a fiacre

In which he met his Maker


Leo Tolstoy

Was a good ol’ boy

Who fled from his wife

At the end of his life 


George Eliot

To hear biographers tell it

Wrote as a man

But lived as Mary Ann


James Cain

Waited in vain

For his royalty checks

Now his postman’s an ex



With comedy can thrill us

But an eagle did hurtle

And he was killed by a turtle

[ discounts the tale, saying there is no confirmed factual information regarding the death of Aeschylus]

David Foster Wallace

Was not quite as tall as

The length of the rope

And the loss of his hope

david-foster-wallace2Bentley, Ed Clerihew

Created a merry brew

Of rhymes for the very few

So no one would say “Cleri- who?”



Filed under Culture, Fiction, Jean Zimmerman, Writers, Writing

3 responses to “Clerihew’s on First

  1. Andy

    NIce. The one about DFW reminds me of this one by François Villon about himself:

    Je suis Françoys dont il me poise
    Né de Paris emprès Pontoise
    Et de la corde d’une toise
    Sçaura mon col que mon cul poise.

    Translation by Galway Kinnell:

    I am François which is my cross
    Born in Paris near Pontoise
    From a fathom of rope my neck
    Will learn the weight of my ass.


    Hahaha! Now, at this moment, I imagine that every one of your readers is pondering the possibilities…
    Gil Reavill
    Of evil
    Wrote words.
    Had you heard?

  3. Gil Reavill

    Ha ha — everyone’s a critic. My dear wife edited the cleri-slew stew and left out the erstwhile prize-winner:

    Jane Austen
    Wrote books to get lost in
    When “Do you read novels?” I hear
    I say, “All six, every year”

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