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.

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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 clich├ęs 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.