Excerpted from Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, and Photographs, Turtle Point Press, 2000

The clerihew was invented in 1890 by Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who was a schoolboy of 16 at St. Paul’s in London when the divine numen of Orpheus struck him. His best one seems to me: 

The digestion of Milton
Was unequal to Stilton.

He was only feeling so-so
When he wrote Il Penseroso.

He never got any better than that, and few people have ever managed to equal him, though such as Auden, John Sparrow, Constant Lambert, James Elroy Flecker, Maurice Hare and Gavin Ewart have tried. I can recall one sublime effort:

How odd
of God

to choose
the Jews.

But I can never remember the English war poet who wrote it. This makes me quote the equally sublime contradiction by Leo Rosten: 

Not odd
of God.


E.C. Bentley went on to Oxford, was a life-long friend of G.K. Chesterton, wrote editorials for The Daily Telegraph for more than twenty years, and is remembered as the author of the detective novel, Trent’s Last Case.

Francies Stillman’s The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary (1966) says this: “The clerihew is a humorous pseudo-biographical quatrain, rhymed as two couplets, with lines of uneven length, and often contains or implies a moral reflection of some kind. The name of the individual who is the subject of the quatrain usually supplies the first line.”

“The Clerihews of Clara Hughes”

Never read James Dickey
when the weather’s hot and icky.

The time for dickey-dunkin
‘s when de frost is on de punkin.


Babe Ruth
in all truth

weren’t borned like you an’ me—
he come down out of a tree.


Stevie Smith
invited Death

to live with her
and eat verdure.


Li Tai Po,
please telepho-

ne Mnemosyne,
straight away!


John Cage
bestrode his age.

chimes in the octogenarian Huck Finn.