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“Brief Candles” by Henry Taylor (Louisiana State University Press; 54 pages; $14.95) Henry Taylor is a major league poet. Big time. The American University literature professor and co-director of its MFA program in creative writing has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Witter Bynner Prize from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and, in 1986, a Pulitzer Prize. So why in his latest collection, “Brief Candles,” is this highbrow bard found rhyming “Dryden” with “confide in,” “Chomsky” with “bum ski,” and “Rehnquist” with “when quizzed?” Such pixilated rhymes are at the heart of a larky poetic form known as a clerihew, after its British inventor, Edmund Clerihew Bentley. (Who knows why this literary bonbon is not called an edmund or a bentley?) A clerihew consists of two couplets that humorously characterize a person whose name is employed in one of the rhymes. Factual accuracy is not a necessary component. Karl Beckson and Arthur Ganz, in “A Reader’s Guide to Literary Terms,” cite as an example of the form this original Bentley clerihew, alleged to have been inspired by a chemistry lecture: “Sir Humphrey Davy Abominated gravy. He lived in the odium Of having discovered sodium.” Surprisingly enough, Taylor was inspired to try writing his own humorous quatrains by a twist of fate that was anything but funny. In 1998, doctors discovered a malignant tumor on Taylor’s jawbone. Soon, he found himself undergoing debilitating radiation treatment. “I found it impossible to write serious poetry,” Taylor says in a telephone interview from his office on the AU campus. As Taylor tells it, his friend and fellow poet, Columbia University’s David Slavitt, had an idea about how Taylor could keep his poetic muscles limber during his treatment without doing heavy lifting. Slavitt suggested that Taylor try his hand at clerihews. Among Taylor’s first attempts were odes to Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley and inventor Alexander Graham Bell. The latter expresses a sentiment familiar to anyone who has ever shared an elevator with someone bellowing into a wireless telephone: “Alexander Graham Bell has shuffled off this mobile cell. He’s not talking any more, but he has a lot to answer for.” “They can surprise their authors as much as anyone else,” Taylor says of clerihews. “If it’s funny, it’s funny.” Taylor recounts that Slavitt challenged him to write clerihews in categories of people, an exercise that, to Slavitt’s understanding, had never been tried before. Taylor accepted his friend’s dare, and thus was the genesis of “Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews.” After finishing his round of suicide poets (“Richard Brautigan / couldn’t catch the rich trout again / so he turned toward the haywire harms / of alcohol and firearms.”) and before tackling the Disciples (“Jude, / an intense kind of dude, / wrote an epistle brief but dire / warning us all of eternal fire.”), Taylor turned to the Supreme Court. His first word portrait was of Clarence Thomas: “Clarence Thomas preserved and protected his early promise by making sure he never strayed into discussions of Roe v. Wade.” “Clarence Thomas was a worthy first subject,” says Taylor, adding, “If I did Clarence Thomas, though, I had to do the other eight.” Not a simple task, when you consider the difficulty of finding a rhyme for Scalia, for instance. But Taylor pulls the assignment off with great aplomb. His solution to the Scalia puzzler is particularly inventive: “Antonin Scalia likes to sing ‘The Rose of Tralee’ – a treat for all students of his jurisprudence.” “Brief Candles” is a tiny jewel box of humor. And the knowledge that its creation helped a talented poet weather a troubling period — Taylor made a full recovery — adds a touch of poignance to the witty verses.

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