The Ode Less Travelled, by Stephen Fry

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As the subtitle – Unlocking the Poet Within – suggests, Stephen Fry’s optimistic attitude is that we all have a poet inside us, it may just need some encouragement to tease it out.  It’s a shame, he thinks, that while most hobbies have manuals and magazines catering to their enthusiasts, those wanting to improve their skills in poetry are not well served.  That deficit he proceeds to rectify in a long but entertaining handbook, providing the picklock to unpick the poetic lock, as it were.  As might be expected, Fry is a comfortable companion as he guides the reader through the many byways of poetic form.

In fact, given the author, you might think that this would be a light read, but it is surprisingly detailed and technical, particularly the early sections dealing with metre.  He delves into some very obscure forms, which were often designed to show off rather than convey something of value.  It could all be very dry, but his wit keeps you going while you sort your tetrameters from your pentameters and your syllepsis from your synaeresis (and it really is that detailed).  There is a table of metric feet which is extremely useful to keep the permutations in order, and Fry also includes a very handy glossary.

Even so, a lot fans may fall by the wayside, but if you are keen to improve your poetic technique, stick with it and try the exercises, and you will find that it is worth the effort.  He is so encouraging that when he tells you that you should read the poems in the book aloud, or when he gives you exercises to do, you rather feel you are letting him down not doing as he asks (even if you decide to live with his disapproval).

The book proceeds in a logical order, moving from metre to rhyme to form, finishing with diction and general advice on the writing of poetry, in the process building up the methods required both to write your own poems and understand those of others.  Fry includes his own examples to illustrate the forms he is discussing which cleverly show how they are constructed, and in addition to his own efforts to illustrate the point at hand he throws in analysis of the work of numerous poets from all periods, which as well as showing how the experts did it, will hopefully inspire the keen reader to seek out more of their work.

Fry tells us that he has been writing poems for a long time, but not for public consumption, and he transmits his enthusiasm, while once again impressing with his erudition.  Some of his language can be unnecessarily fruity in his enthusiasm (the bit on limericks is shocking), but you forgive him that, unless you are using the book to encourage a child to write poetry perhaps, though they may find the level beyond them anyway.

He goes further than recommend the writing of poetry as an entertaining pastime; he sees the intensity of the preoccupation with language in crafting poems as valuable in inculcating a commitment to language more generally.  If that sounds a bit pompous (and Fry has his detractors on that score), it’s not, and he also stresses that the activity should be fun, and that if it isn’t, the life will go out of it.  The aim is to instil versatility in the use of language, which is a useful skill whether you are a weekend poet doing it for a bit of fun or intellectual stimulation, or have more ambitious goals.

Fry has great respect for the discipline required to write within the constraints of forms such as the sonnet, and less for much of the free-verse tosh that passes for verse today, which he finds lazy and self-indulgent.  He argues that you need to have mastery of technique before you can call yourself a competent poet, whatever form you choose.

Above all, he wants to bring poetry out of the closet in which it lurks, something perceived as the preserve of young girls and floppy-haired velvet-jacketed young men, and put it on a par with other hobbies as something you do naturally, not something that is a cause of embarrassment.

If you are doing this right, TOLT is not a quick read.  The exercises can be tough, but they are rewarding so it is worth persevering, and by the end you should be a better wordsmith than when you started.  He turns what would have been a slog in a classroom setting into play.  It would have been nice to have had this at school to make English lessons more entertaining.

The experienced poet may think that this won’t have anything to teach, but it is a rare versifier who has tried all the forms included here, so whatever one’s level, it is worth a look.  Even if you decide you are never going to be a poet, a competence which requires a huge amount of practice to do well (as with any skill), at least you will be able to read the poems of others with a more discerning eye, and greater enjoyment of the craft that goes into them.

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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