When someone orders an unappetizing meal at a restaurant, the usual response is to dismiss it by saying, “This is no good,” or “I’m not into Mexican food.” But with poetry, the baby, more often than not, is tossed with the bathwater: “I just don’t get poetry” is the typical reaction when an individual poem makes a reader’s eyes cross.
If Stephen Fry had his way, we poor, benighted members of the masses wouldn’t suffer along unenlightened believing that poetry is only for specialists.
You might know Fry from any of a number of lovely British movies and television shows, like Gosford Park or Jeeves and Wooster, or, more recently, in the less than lovely V for Vendetta. But the droll Fry has a “dark and dreadful secret” to share: he writes poetry. And like so many actors before him, he has written a tell-all. As it happens, it is also a how-to.
Believing that “poetry is a primal impulse within us all,” Fry aims to prove it in The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. Mercifully he is vehemently against the school of “just express yourself” tutelage under which many schoolchildren (and their parents) suffer, likening that method to a music teacher sitting a new pupil down at the piano and telling her to bang away.
Instead, Fry sticks to structure, beginning with metrical feet like iambs and dactyls, then progressing through rhyme schemes and various poetical forms, from haiku to ballads to villanelles. (It is, as the author readily admits, neither an exhaustive nor an unbiased survey.) Writing exercises, 20 in all, are sprinkled throughout, as are commands to keep reading aloud.
His is not the first poetry manual; notable precursors include Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse by John Hollander, and Kenneth Koch’s Rose, Where Did You Get That Red: Teaching Great Poetry to Children. But unlike those authors, Fry is an amateur poet, one who writes only for his own enjoyment and takes pains to separate himself from the poetry establishment.
“I concede that I may have exaggerated this epidemic of pernicious anemia,” he concedes not very convincingly, “but cling to my view that far too many practicing poets default to a rather inward, placid and bloodless response to the world.”
He is spot on in his assessment of the allusion-packed, overcooked, dead-on-arrival poems that are often passed off as high literature these days. But, whether humbly or prudently, Fry — who never claims to be more than a lover of words struggling (and often failing) to do his love justice — has no intention of letting the world judge how his own efforts stack up against his standards. He won’t even give us, his loyal pupils, a peek at his poems, instead quoting from established masters or composing teaching examples that, while true to the letter of the law, are about as far from the spirit of poetry as you can get.
For example in his section on Stanzaic Variations, Fry illustrates terza rima, this way:
The TERZA RIMA mode is very fine, Great Dante used it for his famous text/It rhymes the words in every other line With each thought drawing you towards the next:
This is a debatable tactic; it emphasizes his contention that, even should you choose to write free verse, knowledge of and utility with the formal aspects of poetry is a necessity for any serious poet, whether professional or amateur. It also sets a quite reachable bar for fledgling poets struggling with the often maddening demands of sonnets and sestinas. But Fry does his missionary work a disservice by so de-emphasizing the sensual pleasures of verse in his pedagogical examples; what’s the point of following all of these rules if there’s no visceral payoff?
Still, it’s hard to stay cross with a teacher who can’t help but pun, who delights in bawdy jokes, and whose footnotes include: “If you already know your feet and think that this is really an amphibrach, a dactyl and two iambs, I’m afraid I shall have to kill you,” and “Presbyterians, as you may know although Milton probably did not, is an anagram of Britney Spears.”
While the comic relief is mostly welcome, Fry truly shines when ardently defending and explicating the virtues of form (though he is quick to state his admiration of free verse). Several times he points to his lack of serious scholarship; but some of his most poetic moments come while he is analyzing verse.
Linking H.D. Doolittle and Gerard Manley Hopkins, he points out that, while the poets differ in methodology, “you can feel the same striving to enter the identity of experience.” Describing a poem by E.E. Cummings, he writes that “what cummings has done is to create a mechanism whose moving parts are operated by the reader in the act of reading. A verbal sculpture, if you like, containing a potential energy which releases its kinetic force only at the moment of the reader’s engagement.”
These observations make The Ode Less Travelled something more than a solid and engaging how-to book. “Verse is one of our last stands against the instant and the infantile,” Fry writes in the introduction, and this book is his impassioned, worthy contribution to the cause.
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