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The clerihew is a four-line poem with an AABB rhyme scheme that always begins with the subject’s name. The subject is always a famous person. It was first invented by the English crime writer Edward Clerihew Bentley, who felt that limericks had become too dirty and that young people needed a more wholesome form in which to write deliberately bad poetry with the most ridiculous rhymes possible. As you might imagine, the clerihew quickly became just as a degraded. Since Bentley died more than 50 years ago, the form has fallen into a state of neglect . . . until now.

For this we have to thank Paul Ingram, a bookseller at the venerable Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City, who was one day 20 years ago spontaneously seized by an urge to start composing clerihews. He showed them to his friend Bruce Joshua Miller, a writer and publisher’s rep based out of Chicago. Miller thought they should be an illustrated book. Ingram thought that was a swell idea, except that he had neither a publisher nor an illustrator. Miller could offer no immediate help finding a publisher, but he could supply an illustrator: his wife, Julia Anderson-Miller. A publisher came aboard, too, and now we have The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram.

Anderson-Miller had no idea what a clerihew was before she heard about the project, but she was happy to take it on. “I love pen and ink,” she says. “I’ve long admired the pen and ink drawings in old dictionaries.”

Ingram gave her 132 clerihews to work with. The subjects were an eclectic bunch, ranging from Carl Jung to R.K. Narayan, and including Helen Keller, Fuzzy Zoeller, Lady Gaga, Ralph Abernathy, and the country western singer Ferlin Husky (rhymes with “Sandusky”). “The index is probably the first time all those names are together on one page,” Anderson-Miller says. “I love to combine objects that hardly know each other so they develop a relationship.”

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Before she began work, Anderson-Miller didn’t know who some of the characters were, but she enjoyed looking them up—even if Ingram’s poems were not strictly historically accurate. As the illustrator, Anderson-Miller felt a greater responsibility to Ingram than to strict facts. Her favorite poems to illustrate were Rebecca West (“Rebecca West/Became obsessed/With the nether smells/Of H.G. Wells”; the drawing shows Wells in his tighty-whiteys) and Alice B. Toklas (“Alice B. Toklas/Went smokeless,/A little hash/Under her mustache”; she drew a marijuana leaf beneath a nose).

“The clerihews are pure genius,” she says. “Paul’s read so much, he knows what he’s doing. He’s quite a character. I felt like I got to understand Paul in a weird way, to understand his earnestness, integrity, whimsy, and nonsense. I went along with it.”

Julia Anderson-Miller will be discussing The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram tonight at 7:30 PM at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark, 773-769-9299. There will be recitations of clerihews and a singalong.