Is This a Clerihew Which I See Before Me?

August 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

“Paul Ingram’s lost clerihews are devilishly clever; Julia Anderson-Miller’s illustrations are a wicked delight. The sum is much greater than its parts. Like BBQ and beer, a perfect pairing.”–Linda Bubon, Women & Children First Chicago, Illinois

“The quick and the dead, the famous and the infamous, the saintly and the sinful, all are grist for this superlatively witty writer’s mill.  The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram, beautifully illustrated by Julia Anderson-Miller, will rescue even the dullest dinner party.” — Margot Livesey

“Paul Ingram’s delightful collection of clerihews is so much fun that after you read it, you will need to put aside whatever important work you are doing and write several of your own.”—Roz Chast, author & illustrator

pauls book

The ability to make us laugh is a talent the gods do not give out with abandon. Hidden in plain sight today is a book destined to become a classic, a unique contribution to the canon of humorous verse in English: “The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram,” by Paul Ingram, illustrated by Julia Anderson-Miller, with a foreword by Elizabeth McCracken.

The clerihew, a four-line poem consisting of two rhyming couplets, becomes by turns a dagger or a candid camera in Ingram’s hands, exposing the peccadilloes, obsessions, and intentions—good and bad—that animate famous historical and cultural figures– and playing them for laughs. “The Lost Clerihews” is the fruit of a successful collaboration between an irreverent  writer  and a versatile visual artist.

Paul and Julia PL IA-2

I know it sounds funny to use the word “canon” in connection with this book for a couple of reasons. First because Ingram takes on “canonical” writers, past and present, unafraid of ruffling feathers. And he has fun with various religious figures, Jesus Christ, Thomas a Kempis, Ignatius Loyola, and St. Francis Xavier among them:

Thomas a Kempis

Drove down to Memphis,

A monastic spaceman

In the world of Graceland.

Compressed language in poetic form begs you to slow down to one mile per hour, reading the text, enjoying the accompanying drawing, entering the spirit of the clerihew, and allowing it to make you laugh:

Thomas  Kempis

The comedy of every clerihew in this collection is augmented, boosted, magnified by “a very pointed, exceptionally relevant line drawing.”  “They are as whimsical as they are recognizable, each drawing a fun depiction of the poem’s subject.

Johnthan Franzen-1

Jonathan Franzen

Threw a tantrum.

When asked to go

On the Oprah show.

We see in Ingram’s book a mix of Edward Lear-like fiction based on comic contrast, the unlikely pairing of disparate cultural figures, and poems that wryly profile subjects based on their actual biographies.

A great deal of ink has been spilled, or should I say pixels placed, about the fact that Paul Ingram is a much beloved and longtime bookseller at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City. In fact, Brucejquiller sang his praises in an earlier blog post, From Iowa with Love: “… I spotted Paul Ingram, compulsive reader, able buyer, enthusiastic reviewer and the keeper of ‘Paul’s Corner.’ Paul’s videotaped book reviews ought to be on the websites of a hundred stores at least. NPR producers take note, ‘60 minutes’ set your clock, here’s your man, someone whose infectious love of books might please millions.”

But his talent as a bookseller, and his self-effacing manner, can obscure the fact that Ingram’s humor is married to considerable technical skill. His caesuras are sure-footed, his rhymes sometimes surprise. His poems can be shocking, silly, Rabelaisian, informative, profoundly clever, and fun. In addition to making you laugh, The Lost Clerihews might well introduce you (as they did me) to musicians, writers or philosophers you have never heard of. In fact, his book would provide an effective means of introducing students to poetry, despite or maybe because of the fact that some of the poems “are, ahem, a wee bit off color.”

In his (1981) introduction to “The Complete Clerihews of E. Clerihew Bentley,” the poet Gavin Ewart says, “No one besides Bentley has ever written really good clerihews.” Well, now someone has.

arms in air

Paul Ingram and Elizabeth McCracken






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