Wednesday, 28 July 2010

On the clerihew: language as comedy

Edmund Clerihew Bentley, the journalist and writer of detective stories invented the clerihew in his 1905 book, Biography for Beginners. What is the clerihew? This is what Wiki says about it:

The lines are comically irregular in length, and the rhymes, often contrived, are structured AABB. One of his best known is this (1905):

Sir Christopher Wren
Went to dine with some men
He said, "If anyone calls,
Say I'm designing Saint Paul's."

A clerihew has the following properties:

It is biographical and usually whimsical, showing the subject from an unusual point of view; it pokes fun at mostly famous people

It has four lines of irregular length (for comic effect); the third and fourth lines are usually longer than the first two

The rhyme structure is AABB; the subject matter and wording are often humorously contrived in order to achieve a rhyme

The first line consists solely (or almost solely) of the subject's name.

That seems a fair description though much depends on how you interpret 'comically irregular'. The term implies that you can have irregularity that is not comic; that one might even run to tragic irregularity. So what makes irregularity comic?

It is, I suspect, amusing in itself to rhyme simply on a person's name. It satisfies the child in us. It also assures us of an apparently childish but rather sophisticated pleasure in the accidents of language.

The chief accident of language is language itself. As has often been pointed out the word 'table' has nothing whatsoever to do with the object with four legs and a flat top off which you may choose to eat. Nothing intrinsically that is. It is, intrinsically, an accident. It is called other things in other languages, and we might choose to invent a language in which, say, the word 'bloof' indicated 'table'. From this perspective language is an enormous superstructure balanced precariously on thin air. The surprising thing is that it should remain so balanced when it has so far to fall. At the bottom of that fall it is, as the greatest English wordsmith put it: '...a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifiying nothing.'

Comedy is danger without damage. There is an old silent film in which two men begin a fight in the street. As they fight each other they move closer and closer to a cliff edge, at which point one hits the other and the man falls hundreds of feet to the bottom of the cliff. He hits the bottom.

On hitting the bottom he bounces up and shakes his fist in anger. (It is essentially the banana skin practical joke which stops being funny once the person falling starts to bleed.)

It certainly helps if the figure falling had some previous dignity. As G K Chesterton, the Catholic paradoxist, puts it somewhere, the fall of man on banana skin enacts the Fall of Man.

Your name is your dignity ('Won't you dignify it with a name?' asks the explorer's companion of the discoverer of a new plant). Dignity is name. But name too is accident. Ask Ed Balls.


So you have the dignity of the name and the comedy of the accidental rhyme. That's how you start. A rhyme is not only accident it is also contrivance (as language itself is contrivance, a contrivance of syntax and grammar). Having the second line unequal in length to the first increases the sense of contrivance. Look he has had to make the line longer / shorter to make it fit!

So we have accident and contrivance in the first two lines. But those lines are also a proposition that requires development. You only have four lines, so that leaves just two. The development could be in the form of antithesis, a kind of 'on the other hand' such as the last limerick below.

In the Bentley clerihew about Wren we get development. We have Sir Christopher at dinner in the second line. He has a servant to whom he leaves an instruction in the third line. He is, perhaps, too modern a servant for Sir Christopher judging by the language, so we are slightly off balance again. And then comes fourth line, which is both excuse and boast. It is also rhyme: a brief harmless accident waiting to happen.

The incident itself never happened of course. It has been contrived so that we can get to St Paul's by way of bathos.

I say 'contrived', but I don't really believe in contrivance as strategy. I believe in contrivance as accident, as improvisation, as a kind of sally or venture. In the case of the clerihew it is a very brief venture, a brief act of delicate teetering.


Delicacy is at the heart of it. Clerihew is soufflé not roly-poly. It is feather duster rather than wrecking ball. It is a delicate dance that looks clumsy but lands perfectly. A perfect epigram can behead a man, but a perfect clerihew will do no more than tickle him. The perfect epigram is built on firm metrical foundations. The perfect clerihew seems to be slipping all the time and only keeping itself upright by a sequence of extraneous movements - there is always something too long somewhere.

The clerihew needs to be attached to some idea of person, whether as biography, or as popular conception (public figures are as much popular conceptions as critical lives) and may make a passing remark on the person named in the first line. That remark may be pertinent in its way, but the clerihew is, ironically, not there to concern itself entirely with persons. It is useless as satire because what it really points at is not person but language.

The essential comedy is in language. The propositions of clerihew are ludicrous in just the right awkward proportions. There is no solemnity in clerihew. All solemnity can do in a clerihew is look ridiculous.


Over at Facebook, on a whim, I have been drip-feeding clerihews from a batch I made up a couple of years ago as silly gifts for friends. The response has been large. People have been responding with clerihews of their own, some brilliant, some clumsy, some perfect. Here's one I made earlier, as they say:

E.C. Bentley
tried to break it to them gently:
the sad fact is very few
can turn a clerihew.

It seems quite a few can and take delight in it.

I wouldn't want to be exclusively a writer of clerihews, not even chiefly or substantially. But language is delight and overflow and comedy as well as a deadly serious matter. Samuel Beckett understood this supremely well.

See this face? he says. It is a human face. See those lines of pain, suffering, horror, disappointment, cruelty, lust, envy and loss? They're really there. And that great big thing above his head there? That's the sky. Perfectly empty. Hear me saying this: 'perfectly empty'. Can you hear how comical that sounds? Have you heard the one about...? And about..? Heard the one about Sir Christopher Wren? Now turn the lights out and go to sleep. Give me your hand first. There, there. It's all right. A man walks into a bar and says to the barman:

James Joyce
had a very nice voice,
better than that racket
made by Samuel Beckett.

Shall I sing that to you?

Shall I sing that to you?


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I've been enjoying the clerihews on fb. Perhaps part of the humour in irregular lines comes from thwarted expectation, another from the act of inappropriate keepy-uppy.

As for comedy, definitions vary. (I've never seen Tarantino, but once watched a bit of a German forklift truck training video.)

George S said...

That video is positively painful. Early Tarantino possibly.

Maybe blood is funny after all, when heavily overdone. There was that splendid Monty Python sketch about Terence Rattigan as directed by Sam Peckinpah: Upright piano on lawn, man plays, lid comes down, horrified look, huge spout of blood as both hands cut off at wrist. Etc.

And Peter Jackson's early film: Braindead. ('The word gratuitous doesn’t even begin to cover it', said one review.)

Maybe imagined pain has to come into it too.

Anonymous said...

Monty Python - yes, even now. I can just about manage their last waf(f)er thin mint (what? 40 years ago?), though I know others a generation younger than me who can't. I don't know Braindead, but if anything rescues the MP sketches and even the forklift truck video, it's absurdity.

I think comedy mileage varies from culture to culture. ("Culture" here isn't a synonym for language group btw, more to do with occupation. Soldiers and medics laugh at death.) Although I find the forklift truck video unbearable, clearly others find it funny. I've never had the stomach to watch Tarantino. I once thought that comedy was tragedy without the death but now I'm not so sure.

This is all a far cry from clerihews, but they can have their own cruelty, especially if true.


George S said...

I have seen Braindead. I am not sure whether I ever become inured to the sheer volume of extruded gore as the film went on, but there was certainly a sense of the increasingly ludicrous. (I am quite squeamish.)

There is something Rabelaisian about it all. The whole business of the body as a splatter factory rings an ominous bell.

Toilet humour, innit? I mean you gotta larf.

Alfred Corn said...

Good comments on the clerihew. Loose as the definition is, I'd have it be looser still. Perhaps, "A short poem beginning with a recognisable name, followed by a second line rhyming that name, with the option of adding one or two more lines, either metrical or non-metrical, rhyming or non-rhyming." To hedge a comic form like the clerihew with too many restrictions would seem to be inconsistent with its comic nature. The double-dactyl verseform seems to have been stifled by an excess of requirements listed for it.

Mark Granier said...

'I've never had the stomach to watch Tarantino.'

His best film, Pulp Fiction, is not particularly gory. Scorsese's Goodfellas (another masterpiece) is more violent, and far more stomach-turning because the violence is much closer to the actual thing (in that sense it is a far more consciously 'moral' film). Both have marvelous dialogue and perfect casting. Pulp Fiction is (blackly) hilarious, and, in terms of editing, etc., really quite beautiful.

George S said...

That is an interesting line of thought in itself, Alfred. Two parts to it:

1. Any form may be loosely interpreted and still be referred to as that form (unrhymed sonnet, Meredithian sonnet, etc);

2. The specific nature of the comic clerihew requires (or it is preferable that it receives) a liberal interpretation because it invites it.

There is a good case for (1), in that forms work partly by association, so a sonnet form may be suggested by something looser, the suggestion sufficient to jog the reader's memory of more formal sonnets. There is the close family: and there are the more distant cousins.

Case (2) is also possible, though the distinction I was trying to make in the post between the potentially decapitating epigram in rhyming couplet form (say, 'Now at the ear of Eve, venomous toad / Half froth, half venom spits himself abroad'), and the limerick with its inbuilt looseness might suggest the latter does not need extraneous looseness, since apparent looseness is its essence.

But of course a good poem that is born out of the clerihew is still a good poem whatever you call it.

George S said...

Oh, I certainly agree on Tarantino, Mark. My first reaction to the Tarantino par excellence, Pulp Fiction, was 'postmodern smartarse!', but I began to develop a positive fondness and admiration of it. It just refuses to let go, and feels definitive.

QT knows about slasher movies and gore-fests of course and plays off them while being something else.

Braindead is the postmodern gore-fest. But it still pleases the hard core gore fans (among whom I do not number myself.)

Mark Granier said...

Re gore and humour, particularly Python, the funniest I've probably seen is The Black Knight sketch from Holy Grail ('just a flesh wound'):

Mark Granier said...

'QT knows about slasher movies and gore-fests of course and plays off them while being something else.

Braindead is the postmodern gore-fest. But it still pleases the hard core gore fans (among whom I do not number myself.)'

To digress farther, I love a good horror film but usually dislike gore; it neither frightens me nor makes me laugh, apart from stuff like the Python sketch and the excellent American Werewolf In London; in Alien (1) it is also used brilliantly, because sparingly, as with the single gory scene in The Hidden (or Caché), one of the best films I've seen in years.

I actually haven't bothered with Death Proof, T's latest homage to B-movie slashers, though, introducing another genre, I've seen one of the Kill Bill films, which I liked.

Have you seen Inglorious Basterds? Some remarkable scenes, particularly towards the end. Not, of course, to be considered as a 'serious' (or compassionate/historically accurate/'realistic', etc.) film about the Nazis, who would have been right at home in an Indiana Jones movie. But as black, bravura tragicomedy it is extraordinary.

Anonymous said...

Mark, I agree - Caché was brilliant and the gore there was - ah, two scenes IIRC (the chicken and then the murder) - central to the plot.

I'm interested in how often gore in horror makes people laugh, and indeed seems designed to do so. The gore in 'Let the Right One In' is mostly matter of fact but there are moments where it seems comedic - at least, to judge by audience reaction, seems like old fashioned melodrama.

George S said...

Melodrama might be right in terms of formalism, but Victorian melodrama didn't play, as far as I am aware, on the audience sense of the physically real: the signs, if one may put it that way, are more clearly distanced and morally coded.

The blood in the gore-fest seems to me to be saying: the body is like this. You know it is. Now imagine the worst thing that can happen to it and we will make your imagination come true. You will laugh because you know you've been pushed to the edge but can at the edgiest of those edgy moments remind yourself it was only a dream or convention.

And people do often laugh after terror. Laughter is complex. "For Gods sake, tell me what's so funny about that!" "Well, if you can't see the joke I can't explain."

But we're not talking about the horror genre, but specifically about the gore-fest. And that is primarily about the body, surely? I suspect that gore-fest laughter has something delirious about it.

Ms Baroque said...

Wonderful. I'll have to print it out to read the whole thing; but I've already written a tribute clerihew on your FB thread :)