Thursday, May 04, 2006

More Clerihew Advice

A Clerihew Complaint (sent to me via John Peterson)

by Gramps

My friends, a heavy sense of duty requires me to add my voice to the chorus of complaints against the Annual Midwest Clerihew Contest.

However, I am not going to complain about the judges. Instead, I am going to
complain about the contestants.

Mine is not a general complait. No, in general, I find our clerihews of a very high quality, as clever as they are absurd. Can any conception be more pleasantly preposterous than that of Jim Wenders when he mixes up the cello with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets? What could be more deliciously gouche than Joe Theriault’s description of St. Peter as “a toughie named Rock”? And how do we top the impertinent anachronism of Father Max Barrett, who thinks Adam and Eve quoted St. Augustine? No, these conceptions are sufficiently outlandish to satisfy the most fastidious of students of the clerihew.

My complaint is simply that too many of our clerihew contestants seem to have only the vaguest conception of what is meant by the word “rhyme.” Clerihews are supposed to rhyme. In fact, it is the rhyming that offers most of the challenge and much of the fun of this elusive verse form.

It is true that rhyme is a matter of the sound of words, and regional differences in pronunciation can make us differ about how words are properly pronounced. I know some Yoopies who think “boat” rhymes with “go at.” But it is not regional differences that I am complaining about here.

My friends, “invention” does not rhyme with “Jim Henson,” nor does “boardman” rhyme with “Michael Jordan,” nor does “fame to all” with “Andy Warhol,” nor “the cello yet” with “T.S. Eliot,” nor “old” with “Helmut Kohl,” nor “at a mall” with “Bernard Shaw,” nor “stilton” with “Edward O Wilson,” nor does “understanding” rhyme with “Cardinal Manning.” They don’t rhyme.

Yet all of these appeared in clerihews that won prizes or honorable mentions in recent Chestertonian clerihew contests.

Perhaps our poets are confusing the requirement for irregular rhythm with a call for irregular rhyme. I don’t know what is causing this failure. And I’m certainly not saying that a word can’t be twisted and bent and tortured in order to get a rhyme out of it. That’s the fun of it. When E. Clerihew Bentley told us that “the Duke of Wellington was reduced to a skellington,” he was pushing the clerihew to a new plateau of applesauce.

He also said of Newton that “some people will have it he discovered gravity” and gave us “the friends of Mr. Pendlebury his body in the end’ll bury” and “said Mr. Gladstone, the land thou formerly hadst—own!” and “Mr. F. Anstey drank, when he had the chance, tea” whilst GKC was offering “Solomon you can scarcely write less than a column on” and “Lawrence Olliphant observed ‘what a jolly font!’ ”

Midwest clerihewists, let us declare war on the boring rhyme as well as the non rhyme. What is the fun and where is the wild invention in rhyming “tune” with “moon” or “sun” with “fun”? Lost opportunities all.

Let’s go for it!

David Beresford, did you really rhyme “Kipling” with “sing”? In a poem that speaks respectfully of drinking gin, did not the word “tippling” even flit across your mind? No?

Dale Ahlquist, could you not improve on “back” as a rhyme for “black”? In a poem about the tribulations of the Hebrews, I would hope for something at least as foolish as having Pharaoh appeal to “Abednego, Meshach, and Shadrach.”

And surely, John Peterson, you could have found something, anything, more amusing to rhyme with “Lois Lane” than the bland and obvious “must be insane.” You could have reached for “using legerdemain” or at least tried “champagne, cocaine, and/or hurricane.” But the ho hum “insane”? Please.

No rhyming bright spots, then, Gramps? Well, for those who are somehow still reading this harangue, I will admit to having some admiration in the Rhymes Department.

I think Ron McCloskey was out and out inspired when something made him write of the Egyptian Queen, “Maybe Cleo had B.O.”

I would have given all available bonus points to Mike Foster for his grotesque,
“Sir Lancelot wore iron pants a lot.”

And I would award as big a bonus to Jim Wenders for “by our folly, peccatum originale.”

Also the 1996 contest sorely missed Frances Farrell’s well-crafted nonsense, such as her outrageous “Venus de Milo was heard to sigh low” from 1995.

So, I challenge all future clerihew contestants to aim higher (or do I mean lower?) and shun the shopworn, Tin-Pan-Alley, Golden-Oldie rhymes of the June-moon-croon-tune-swoon-soon variety. Let’s reach for the fiddlesticks! And I also challenge the judges to run roughshod over all lazy rhymesters of the future.

I suppose you readers expect me to end this column with a silly and showy rhyme. Sorry, but that’s not the kind of columnist I’m. # #

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