On Poetry – Part 5: Comic Verse – The Limerick, The Cento, and The Clerihew

We’re nearly at the halfway point for April, and thus the halfway point for the many poets participating in NaPoWriMo. I suspect many are feeling the same as I am – exhausted and deflated. Writing poetry daily under this kind of pressure can quickly turn this hobby into a chore, and I find the best thing to do in such a situation is to change the tune, to break it up a little. So, we move from the villanelles and sestinas I have discussed in previous blogs to comic forms that will remind us that poetry can be fun and simple, too.

I am going to look at three forms of comic verse – the limerick, the cento, and the clerihew – and briefly discuss what they entail, along with some fun examples, to show that these forms can be just as much fun for adults as for children.

The Limerick

The limerick has been popular for the last two centuries, and is a five line poem normally of a silly, funny or sometimes even lewd nature. Despite its simplicity, it does in fact stick to a strict rhyming pattern, where the first, second and fifth lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyme with one another. What really gives the limerick its power, however, is the rhythm, which has a bouncy feel to it using double weakly stressed syllables, and this type of rhythm is known as an anapestic rhythm. The rhythm can be demonstrated by the following pattern, where dashes are weakly stressed syllables, and the back-slashes represent emphasised syllables.

1) – / – – / – – /
2) – / – – / – – /
3) – / – – /
4) – / – – /
5) – / – – / – – /

Of course, not every limerick adheres strictly to this pattern, but you’ll find if you do it gives the poem a lot more power and buoyancy, which often adds to the comic feel you are wanting to achieve. I’m going to provide two examples for this, one by Edward Lear, and one by Spike Milligan (which is slightly off in terms of rhythm, but which still works). Particularly in the case of the Lear limerick, read it aloud to hear the rhythm we just discussed.

From Edward Lear’s Book Of Nonsense

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

There was a young soldier called Edser from Spike Milligan’s Silly Verse For Kids

There was a young soldier called Edser
When wanted was always in bed sir:
One morning at one
They fired the gun,
And Edser, in bed sir, was dead sir.

The Cento

The cento is remarkably easy to explain, and a surprisingly good way to come to terms with a particular poet and their way of writing. Why? Because the cento is made up of individual lines taken from fragments of other poetry, often all from the same poet (although you can mix them up). The result is a parody of that poet, particularly if using well-known and much loved lines, and yet, despite the parody, it can also be a form of tribute to the poet, especially if it still works well together. The example I am going to give is by Ian Patterson, and is a cento made up of lines from some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have taken this poem from Stephen Fry’s marvellous book on poetry, The Ode Less Travelled.

Ian Patterson’s Shakespeare Cento

When in the chronicles of wasted time
That thy unkindness lays upon my heart,
Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime
To guard the lawful reasons on they part,
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And scarcely greet me with that sun thine eye
To change your day of youth to sullen night,
Then in the number let me pass untold
So that myself bring water for my stain,
That poor retention could not so much hold
Knowing thy heart torment me in disdain:
        O cunning love, with tears thou keep’st me blind,
                Since I left you my eye is in my mind.

The Clerihew

The Clerihew, named after Edmund Clerihew Bentley, is a four line poem non-metrically written in rhyming couplets, where the first line is a proper name with nothing added. They tend to be clumsy in feel, and are supposed to tell a biographical truth about their subject. Other than that, there’s not much to them really. I’ll include two examples, both of which are taken from Stephen Fry’s book again, and the first of which is actually his own attempt at one.

Oscar Wilde
Had his reputation defiled. 
When he was led from the dock in tears
He said “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at two years.”

Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

So there we have it – three forms of poetry that are a bit more fun, and a nice way to give yourself a break, particularly if you happen to be writing thirty poems in thirty days!

I would absolutely love to see people’s attempts at these forms, too, so please feel free to share (I will be sharing some more comic verse of my own soon).

Lastly, you can find Part 1 of this series, which included some of my thoughts on poetry, here, Part 2 which looked at some great poetry books here, Part 3 which looked at the villanelle here, and Part 4, focusing on the sestina, here – please do click on these links and check out these pages if you haven’t already, as there may be something that grabs your poetic interest on those posts too.

Happy reading and writing, poets, authors, readers and friends!

11 thoughts on “On Poetry – Part 5: Comic Verse – The Limerick, The Cento, and The Clerihew

  1. I’ve learned something new, again. Thank you for explaining the Clerihew and Cento! 🙂 I liked the Limerick you posted the other day. There always seems to be something a little cheeky about them! Stephen Fry’s Cento was fun but I haven’t read Shakespeare enough to pick out those particular lines from his work.

    • I think that’s what I like about limericks, that cheekiness that squints through them. I find all these forms are just fun, and after spending several days writing long and serious poems, it’s nice to sit back and indulge in these forms, as well!
      I recognise some of those Shakespeare lines, but not all of them. I think he wrote something like 200 sonnets…I have ready many but not all of them, not yet anyway. One day I plan tor read all the sonnets and all 37 of the plays…maybe that can be my 2013 reading goal?

  2. Pingback: Silly Verse for Kids – a book I wish I had read as a child | wantoncreation

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