Ahow-to manual for would-be versifiers, The Ode Less Travelled will annoy some poets, and not just because its sales are bound to outstrip their own efforts. For Stephen Fry, too many of them "default to a rather inward, placid and bloodless response to the world", producing "dreary, self-indulgent, randomly lineated drivel". In case we miss the point, Fry brandishes critical terms like "arse-dribble" for emphasis. The cure Fry proposes is a return to the poetry of traditional metres and forms; his book runs through the options, pausing to set the reader a series of uninspiring exercises.
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Ahow-to manual for would-be versifiers, The Ode Less Travelled will annoy some poets, and not just because its sales are bound to outstrip their own efforts. For Stephen Fry, too many of them "default to a rather inward, placid and bloodless response to the world", producing "dreary, self-indulgent, randomly lineated drivel".
In case we miss the point, Fry brandishes critical terms like "arse-dribble" for emphasis. The cure Fry proposes is a return to the poetry of traditional metres and forms; his book runs through the options, pausing to set the reader a series of uninspiring exercises. Lest we confuse him with Auberon Waugh, who campaigned for "proper" poetry to so little effect in the pages of The Literary Review, Fry does acknowledge an enjoyment of Modernists such as Eliot and Pound; but there is deliberate Blimpishness here, archly reinforced by the book jacket's illustration of a quill and ink-pot.
Nevertheless, there are enough insights in the book to suggest that it was written out of Fry's own practice. He understands, for example, the difficulty of writing truly free verse, has learnt that form can engender content, and appreciates the art that conceals art. There are established poets who write as if none of this has occurred to them.
Unfortunately, Fry often undermines his best efforts. The Ode Less Travelled rightly argues for the continued relevance of form, but why the scarcity of living poets who utilise the very forms it extols? It is, of course, easier to find gold if time has done the sifting; harder to pan for it yourself. The strangest omission is Paul Muldoon, whose experiments over the past 30 years include a number of distinctive sonnets and extraordinary variations on the villanelle and sestina.
Fry's caricature of the teaching of poetry "Just express yourself. Pour out your feelings" is as superannuated as his roster of poets, and is easily refuted by a glance at, for instance, the Arvon Foundation's programme, which offers courses on "poetic structure and form" and "the way the various techniques of form, rhyme, metre and address can actively aid the imagination". Even Fry's argument that formalism is a remedy for bloodlessness is flimsy; Sharon Olds, CK Williams and August Kleinzahler, American poets readily available in this country, write in a free verse that is anything but anaemic.
On the other hand, Christopher Reid, a formally adroit English poet, employs an artful, childlike diction. Moreover, Fry's claim that one disadvantage of ignoring tradition in order to go your own way is that it is "fantastically difficult and lonely" misunderstands poetry itself. Poets have always been fascinated by what's difficult, and few are as clubbable as Stephen Fry.
Tumbleweed blows down poetry's main street; its saloon doors flap in the wind. In the end, though, the most irksome element of this book is its zealous author, "the man who publicly disports himself in assorted ways" Stephen Fry on Stephen Fry or "the stupid person's clever person" Radio 4's Deadringers on Stephen Fry. Negative capability, "the poetic ability to efface self", as the glossary has it, is not one of Stephen Fry's talents.
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He's come to read the metre
Fry covers metre , rhyme , many common and arcane poetic forms, and offers poetry exercises, contrasting modern and classic poets. Fry's starting point can be summed up by the quotation with which he heads Chapter One: 'Poetry is metrical writing. In a 'rant' near the end of the book he states: "I think that much poetry today suffers from anaemia. There is no iron in its blood, no energy, no drive". Fry sets out to explain the many tools available to a poet in order to organise writing, noting poetry's essential metrical basis and introducing the many technical terms, with explanations and exercises.
School of Verse
Fry is a wonderfully engaging teacher and writer of poetry himself, and he explains the various elements of poetry in simple terms, without condescension. His enjoyable exercises and witty insights introduce the concepts of Metre, Rhyme, Form, Diction, and Poetics. Aspiring poets will learn to write a sonnet, on ode, a villanelle, a ballad, and a haiku, among others. Along the way, he introduces us to poets we've heard of, but never read.