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Book Review: The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram

BY HOPE CALLAHAN

Paul Ingram, an Iowa City icon for more than two decades in his influential role as Prairie Lights Bookstore’s most revered bookseller, has recently joined the ranks of published authors with his collection of poetry, The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram. The Des Moines Register dubbed Ingram “Iowa’s Literary Tastemaker” -- a title well deserved if the praises of various writing world notables such as Christopher Merrill and Elizabeth Crane are any indication. The collection of sometimes bawdy and always playful four line poems was released in June by Ice Cube Press, out of North Liberty, Iowa. The clerihews were amassed over the past twenty years as Ingram stared down lists of literary and philosophical greats in his work at Prairie Lights. Ingram thought he had lost them for a time and they were only recently rediscovered—hence the title.

No one is spared in Ingram’s irreverent verses. The subjects range from Miley Cyrus to Baudelaire, all lampooned in the pages of this enjoyable little book. The clerihews are accompanied by the delightful illustrations of Julia Anderson-Miller. The small sketches that go with each poem perfectly complement the verses. They are as whimsical as they are recognizable, each drawing a fun depiction of the poem’s subject. Jonathan Franzen falls back wailing and kicks off a shoe when asked to go on Oprah, and Ethel Merman has an equally delectable portrait of her singing away vermin.

Many of these quick little poems are rather bawdy, so reader: be warned. In his foreword to the book, Ingram readily admits his love for the form stems from its ability to encapsulate irreverence; the propensity of the clerihew to result in poking fun at the most beloved among us. Ingram addresses any opposition to the provocative poems at the outset, saying, “Doesn’t Whistler rhyme with fistula? Well, sort of?”

In its origins, however, the clerihew was meant to be a polite replacement for the limerick, notorious for its naughty subject matter. Named after Edmund Clerihew Bentley, this form was first seen in the earlier part of the twentieth century, though it has fallen out of favor since. Ingram disposes of the noble intention of the clerihew’s creator with glee. Among the most mischievous of his rhymes, Ingram pairs 'Heinrich Schliemann' and 'semen'. I’ll let the reader imagine how Schliemann’s excavation of Troy fits in. In his foreword Ingram asserts that the rhyme drives the form, not specific social commentary or historical accuracy. “If Mother Theresa’s real name happened to be Spunt,” Ingram writes, “the author of the clerihew would, obviously, be forced to point that out.” Although some are definitely not intended for younger ears, most are simply silly. The most juvenile, however, did not make it to the final draft, says Ingram in an interview with Little Village. He sifted through some 300 clerihews for the final hundred or so that made the cut.

Above all, the four liners are meant to solicit a snort at least and a full belly laugh at most. The clerihews lend themselves to being read aloud, preferably in a sing song voice and at a high volume, similar to the way that they were written. “I do not sit down to write clerihews,” Ingram writes. Rather, he says, they came out in what he describes as explosions. He latched on to this form because of other clerihews by well-known authors and lesser known authors alike. He claims the hilarious, off-beat rhyme about Helen Keller by Canadian poet and critic Opal Nations started it all: “Helen Keller/ Had only a smeller/ But through her teacher’s zeal/ Learned to talk like a seal.”

Ingram’s poems are silly, memorable, and definitely worth a read. If it weren’t for the discovery of mildewed pages in the author’s basement, the lost clerihews would have remained lost. Luckily for us, they are now the found clerihews and are available in print at Prairie Lights Bookstore or online through Ice Cube Press. I’ll leave you with one of my favorites, and the advice to pick up The Lost Clerihews and find your own.

            Marcel Proust

            Liked Brussels sprouts,           

            But it was eatin’ cookies

            Got him writing bookies.

The book can be found at Prairie Lights Bookstore, or online, here.