In the spring of 1998, American University literature professor Henry Taylor scribbled a couple of clerihews in his private journal. The clerihew, a century-old cousin of the limerick, is a humorous, four-line biographical poem consisting of two rhyming couplets. Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, never expected to publish his trifles. But a few months later, Taylor’s life changed radically: Doctors discovered a small, malignant tumor in his lower jaw.
Radiation treatments followed surgery. After Taylor recovered enough to travel, he went to Philadelphia to visit a writer friend, David Slavitt. During the visit, Taylor told Slavitt that he had written some clerihews. When they parted for the night, Slavitt threw out a challenge: Which of them could write the best clerihew about Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley?
“Something about that little challenge affected me instantly,” Taylor says. “I went ahead and made a whole list of clerihews based on book reviewers. I admit that I thought that this was really pretty weird. I called up David and read him 15 of them. I said, ‘We have unleashed a monster.’ In my obsessive period, meeting me was a peril. People would say, ‘How do you do?’ and I would be thinking, What the hell rhymes with your name?”
During his recovery, Taylor craved light verse to occupy his mind, and Slavitt fed the obsession. Slavitt offered Taylor a watch featuring Jesus and the 12 disciples if Taylor could write a clerihew for each disciple. Taylor pulled off that feat in just one day. Later, he clerihewed each of the nine Supreme Court justices and a passel of players in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. (An example: “Henry Hyde/struggled to decide/what the truth was/and when his youth was.”)
Now, Louisiana State University Press has published the collection of short poems as Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews. Taylor doesn’t make excuses for slumming with poetry that looks as if it came straight from a Washington Post “Style Invitational” column. For one thing, Taylor notes that W.H. Auden, Ogden Nash, and Richard Wilbur dabbled in clerihews. Moreover, Taylor adds, coming up with rhymes for proper names is rather difficultespecially when it requires pairing “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” with “…truth, made her wince. ‘Berg/….” (That particular clerihew deals with the movie Titanic. Don’t ask.)
Taylor, 58, splits his time between Loudoun County, Va., where he was raised, and Brunswick, Maine. He has taught at AU for three decades.Taylor has been able to gauge the reactions of some of his subjects in D.C. National Public Radio book reviewer Alan Cheuse and Post reviewer Michael Dirda both liked theirs, Taylor says. So did U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky. Not that Taylor needed any further encouragement from the poetic establishment. Louis Jacobson