A View on a Clerihew

Regular readers might have gathered that I’m a big fan of the clerihew as a poetic form. Recently, I’ve been writing more of them than I have for a long time. But first of all, what is a clerihew?

In the late 1800s, Edmund Clerihew Bentley devised the form as a method of remembering key facts about historical figures for his schoolwork. As such, a verse starts with the name of a person, or sometimes a place or an event. The second line rhymes with the first, while the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other. The more ridiculous the poem, the better, as it then becomes more memorable.

In a few ways, it’s the opposite of another short form: the haiku. A haiku has a fixed syllable count, no intentional rhyming, and is traditionally a serious and reflective verse. It’s a personal view, but I’ve long become tired of reading and writing these, as they’ve become a kind of poetic trope.

By contrast, I don’t often encounter the clerihew. Its liberated form makes it ideal for a quick observation. Over the last few weeks, my subjects have included: my partner and our mutual friends, performers at an LGBT poetry event, and the tenant of a very narrow home.

One day, I might tire of writing these, as I did with haikus, but my pencil will continue to flow until then.

What to Read Next

Waterstones has a reward scheme where you receive points on a card depending on how much you spend at the till. You used to be given stamps on a card but this has been replaced with a credit-card-style system.

On Sunday, I discovered I had three old stamp cards. When they were trasferred to plastic, I discovered I had £20 towards my next purchase.

While this is great news, there was nothing in stock that attracted my interest enough, and I also have enough books waiting to be read without buying any more. I’ve been a terrible writer of late, as I haven’t read enough of others’ work.

What I might do instead is save the card until I need to buy a gift for someone. It’s a satisfying feeling to pick exactly the right book that you know they’ll enjoy.

Giving Quality Feedback on Poetry

It’s something of a badge of honour when someone asks me to read over a poem they’ve written and to provide feedback. So I was only too happy to oblige when a friend sent me a three-part piece she wasn’t sure about.

On receipt of a poem, I first of all go through a mental checklist of features I would expect to see. As I write, I realise this is the first time I’ve written down these features, so I might return to this topic and make amendments.


Punctuation

Although poetry often employs types of line breaks that don’t appear in prose, it’s a convention that sentences are still punctuated in the same way with commas, full stops and other marks.

Capitalisation

Before 1900 or so, the first letter of a new line was capitalised whether or not it was at the beginning of a new sentence. Beginning in the 20th century, however, that first letter is not usually capitalised unless it also begins a sentence.

Forced rhymes

Not all poetry rhymes, but when a rhyme is included, it’s conventional to make it sound as natural as possible. I hear too many cases where the poet has written in rhyming couplets and the order of the words in the second line of each couplet is altered to make it fit with the first.


After those three checks, I consider other aspects such as word choice, whether any clichés have been used, the rhythm of the piece, and how the structure might be amended for greater impact on the reader.

But these are only conventions and they can be broken. In the second part of her poem, my friend eschewed punctuation and capitalisation so it read like work from Allen Ginsberg or E E Cummings. If you’re planning to break poetic convention, the best way is to make it clear to the reader that you’re not following the rules.

Overall, I was pleased with the piece my friend sent, and I look forward to hearing it in its final form.

More Important Than the Important Work

There probably isn’t an author who hasn’t been distracted from their work at one time or another. Even when a deadline is approaching, sometimes it’s a more attractive option to wash the dishes, walk the dog or head to the pub.

I suffered from this affliction recently when I spent about an hour trimming the cords on the blinds in my writing room rather than complete a piece. The cords did need trimmed, but as they’d waited about a year already, there was no reason why they couldn’t have lasted another day.

Now it’s happened again. The distraction this time isn’t a menial task, but another piece of work.

I recently joined a story writing group called Table 23. The intention is for the other members to chip in with suggestions for our individual projects and to provide some friendly peer pressure so we’ll actually complete what we’ve proposed.

I talked about the novel I want to redraft and I was given helpful suggestions about how the plot might progress. But after several visits to the annual Edinburgh Festivals this month, I’ve come away with another idea, this time for a one-hour play featuring two characters. I find myself thinking about it and coming up with new plot points at the expense of the Table 23 novel.

In this instance, I’m going to run with the play and at least make a first draft. My novel has at least been planned out and can wait a little longer, whereas I want to capture the play on paper before all the details evaporate.

The Long and The Short of It

This week, I’ve been looking through some of my old short stories and flash fiction.

I started exclusively prose in 2010 before moving gradually to poetry. As a result, I have an archive of pieces that are complete but are unedited.

Looking through them, I can now immediately spot where I’ve told the reader what was happening instead of showing it through action or dialogue, and any clumsy phrases that I’d now strike down. Here’s an example:

“How much have you had to drink?” she laughed, as he picked himself up. They had enjoyed only a small wine before heading out.

Today, I would probably have shown the character picking himself up in a different way, and placed the information about the small wine into dialogue.

However, I did spot a piece of flash fiction that I still wouldn’t edit very much. This is You’re Going Down.


The referee in the first boat shouted to the other two.

“The race is from here to that island. I want a fair competition, no funny business, no putting each other off. Understand?” They agreed, not quite in unison. “All right. On your marks, get set.” He blew a loud horn.

As soon as they picked up their oars, the man on the left began to regret his drunken bragging the previous week. Still, he felt sure he would win. The small hole he had drilled in his opponent’s boat would take care of that.

Cohesion

Having read last week’s entry, a friend gave me feedback that she felt it ended without a conclusion. I agreed with this analysis: the final paragraph had linked to a page on Reddit that was too loosely connected to what had gone before.

On writing a story, I know it’s finished when the characters are where I intended them to be. For a poem, I work more by experience; when I feel I’m dragging it out, I know to stop.

I find a blog entry is more difficult. I’m not often telling a story, nor conveying an emotion through poetic language. In those cases, I would leave the most exciting parts until nearer the end and perhaps introduce a twist.

On WordPress, I’m writing factually about writing, and some subjects don’t lend themselves well to a linear narrative or a logical progression of events.

I therefore asked my friend how she would rewrite the end of the blog entry in question. She’s worked as a reporter and an editor, so has much more experience in writing factually. She told me it’s a bad idea to introduce something new in the last paragraph, and suggested summing up what was said near the beginning,

I revisited the entry, removed the dodgy last paragraph and replaced it with one that refers back to the first paragraph. As a result, we agreed it’s more cohesive than the first version.

When It Sounds Terrible on Paper

I’m a member of the Poetizer app, where members can post their poetry for others to read. I use it only to post my own work and read what my comrades have written., but some people explicitly state in their profiles that they welcome feedback on their work,

One profile contains the following:

Currently working on changing every chapter of the Book Thief into separate found poems. I would love feedback and constructive criticism!!

My first reaction to this was No, please don’t, that’s a terrible idea, although I didn’t reply to the person.

Thinking about it, however, I realise I don’t know exactly how the poet intends to execute the project, and it might work well once it’s done. Look at the success of the 50 Shades of Grey series, which started out as Twilight fanfiction.

A few years ago, I wrote a poem called Sir Madam, featuring a character who identifies as neither female or male. I was already uncertain about whether I’d hit the right tone or conveyed the right message. Before its debut, I summarised it to a friend, who reinforced my doubts and added Check your privilege.

I performed the poem anyway at a showcase event. But I included an introduction by way of mitigation; this went on longer than the piece. I needn’t have worried; Sir Madam was rather well-received, and was the one that people remembered when they saw me next.

When a plot is reduced to nothing more than a summary, the nuances are lost and the emotion can be sucked out of it. We always hear stories about authors who had novels rejected multiple times, but it’s likely this was also a judgement on the synopsis, not just the sample chapters that agents often request

With this is mind, I plan to keep an eye on Poetizer, and find out how well – or badly – The Book Thief lends itself to poetry.