by Violet Nesdoly
This is our eighteenth column in the "Poet's Classroom" series.
If Mr. Shakespeare is right and brevity is the soul of wit, then last month’s column where we discussed five-line poems, was about witty writing and this month’s, dealing with poems of four, three and two lines, is about writing that’s even wittier.
It doesn’t hurt a poem in the wit department if it’s funny as well short. Such is the four-line Clerihew. These humorous poems are about specific people. They were invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875–1956) who wrote them as a diversion from his schoolwork. He first called the form "baseless biography," but soon after he published his first collection of clerihews (Biography for Beginners — 1905), people began calling them by his unusual second name and the label stuck.
What makes a clerihew?
1. It has four lines.
2. Its rhyme scheme is: a, a, b, b.
3. The first line of a clerihew usually ends with the name of a person. The second line ends with a word that rhymes with the name.
4. There are no rules about line length and rhythm. In fact, part of the humor of the clerihew is mangled rhythm and a surprise in line length. A clerihew has also been described as having the rhythm of prose.
5. Clerihews don’t have titles.
6. Clerihews are not usually abusive or satirical. Instead, their wit comes from depicting a famous person in an absurd or commonplace setting.
7. The intent of the clerihew is to entertain rather than instruct, be whimsically humorous rather than factual.
Here is one of E. C. Bentley’s first clerihews:
Sir Humphrey Davey
Was not fond of gravy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.
And another that is quite clever:
It was a weakness of Voltaire’s
To forget to say his prayers
And one which to his shame
He never overcame.
Of course if the subject of a clerihew is a well-known person, it will have wide appeal. But one can also write them about family and friends, then pen them into cards, include them in the family newsletter, or read them at birthday parties, anniversaries and roasts.
In case you think writing clerihews is beneath your dignity, know that G. K. Chesterton, a school buddy of Bentley’s, contributed a few of his own clerihews to Bentley’s book. Never mind that some share Michael Quinion’s opinion when he says, “Someone who creates clerihews is a clerihewer, an appropriate term for a person who hacks such lines out of the living language.”1
I would ask Mr. Quinion, how, when your name rhymes with bunion, onion and minion, can you risk being so disdainful of the clerihew and clerihewers?
I’m sure you’ve all heard about, read and probably even written some of these Japanese-inspired three-line poems.
What makes a haiku?
1. It has three lines.
2. It doesn’t use rhyme.
3. The traditional haiku consists of 17 syllables distributed as 5, 7, 5.
4. It doesn’t have a title.
5. It usually contains some seasonal reference.
6. It uses direct, simple language.
7. It avoids overt metaphor and simile.
You know how the haiku regulations, like the list above, always state it doesn’t contain overt metaphor and simile? I was never clear on exactly how the haiku communicated its epiphany if these figures of speech weren’t allowed. That is, until I read Becoming a Haiku Poet, by haiku expert Michael Dylan Welch.
Here’s Welch’s explanation of how the correctly written haiku works: “…it conveys through implication and suggestion .... Haiku does not state this insight, however, but implies it.”2
He explains how a haiku commonly employs two or more images. The effect of metaphor is conveyed by the juxtaposition of the two images. The ‘aha’ moment comes when the reader realizes or makes the connection between the images.
Welch goes on to say: “As a writer of haiku it’s your job to allow the poem to have that spark—and not to spell it out for the reader. This is perhaps the most difficult thing to do with haiku, yet often the least understood structural characteristic.”3
Said another way, “Haiku never express ideas; these must be sensed through the robust picture the writer has drawn.”4
Here is an example:
the pull of her hand
as we near the pet store.
by Michael Dylan Welch5
(Another helpful article on haiku is Marjorie Buettner’s “Landscape of the Heart.” She intersperses concise observations about writing haiku [e.g. “Haiku is a new language which sees with the eyes of the heart, revealing what the heart thinks and the mind feels”] with her prize-winning poems.)
I don’t know about you, but for me these explanations and the examples open a window of understanding on writing haiku. If these poets are right, many of my haiku are not haiku in the classic sense in that they employ metaphor. But with these explanations I now have a better comprehension on how to get it right.
You will notice too that Welch’s haiku doesn’t conform to the 5-7-5 syllable-per-line rule. It seems that more and more serious haiku writers write shorter than 17 syllables and follow a free or organic form rather than a rigid syllable count.
And one last bit of useful trivia: "haiku" is both singular and plural. We don’t talk about "haikus."
Haiga is haiku coupled with visual images. Traditional haiga combines brush art work with haiku rendered in calligraphy. Poets and artists still compose traditional haiga.
Modern haiga involves the use of digital images and other forms of art work instead of brush art. Haiga poets and artists often use photographs. Just like haiku gets its impact from the juxtaposition of images line to line, in haiga the juxtaposition of the words with the visual image adds another layer of meaning. It should be noted that the visual image doesn’t necessarily represent the images in the haiku. In other words, the visual doesn’t function so much as an illustration but more as a means of adding yet another element of significance.
Sarah Rehfeldt—a contributor of articles and poetry at Utmost—has composed some beautiful haiga. See samples:
A Drop in the Ocean
Read more haiga on the web at Daily Haiga and Simply Haiku.
Two-line Bantu (or Abantu) poetry developed from the Bantu people of Africa (speakers of the Swahili, Kinyarwand, Kirundi, Zulu, Xhosa and other related languages). It arose from the oral tradition of “call and response.” In the rhythm of their work and perhaps in the spirit of a game or to relieve boredom, people would call out to each other. The first speaker called out a line that contained an image. A second speaker replied using a second image. This second image was meant to function as an elaboration or metaphor of the first.
1. It has two lines.
2. Each line contains an image.
3. The two images work together to form a metaphor.
4. Bantu don’t have titles.
5. There are no rules about rhyme, rhythm or line length.
What does a Bantu poem look like? Sheila Bender used the Bantu poetry prompt in classes she taught. Here are student samples from her book Writing Personal Poetry:6
Wire hangers on a bar in the closet
Wild geese walking by a lake.
Children in a circle on the floor
The beaded necklace
Writing Bantu poems is an exercise in metaphor-making. Bender reminds us to include images of sound, taste and smell as well as touch and sight.
Some ways Bantu could be included in your daily routine is to make a list of seven first lines at the beginning of the week with a goal to complete them all by week’s end. You could also have a friend or family member challenge you with first lines, or involve the whole family by posting a list of first lines on the fridge or bulletin board for anyone to supply a response. Of course though these short poems are little creations in themselves, the metaphors that they bring to mind could also be used in other writing.
I hope this two-part series has shown you that poems don’t have to be long to be significant. Next time you have just a few minutes to write, don’t brush that time aside as not enough. Instead, challenge your wit and write something short.
Coming February 1:
We will commemorate Valentine month with a look at the sonnet.
Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.
Copyright ©2009 by Violet Nesdoly
 Michael Quinion, “A form of whimsically biographical comic verse,” www.WorldWideWords.org. Clerihew (December 17, 2007)
 Michael Dylan Welch, “Becoming a Haiku Poet.”
 M. D. Welch.
 Naomi Beth Waken, “How to Haiku,” ByLine Magazine, October 2003, p. 13.
 M. D. Welch.
 Sheila Bender, Writing Personal Poetry, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1998, p. 54.