Still breathing!

Just a quick note to say I’m taking a blogging break, as I’ve just moved house and my Internet is not yet connected. With all the packing, moving, unpacking etc my reading has dwindled, something I hope to rectify this weekend with Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce, The comfort of Saturdays by Alexander McCall Smith and volume II of the collected Paris Review interviews. I’m also going to a charity book fair, so it will be a blissfully bookish time after my recent deprivation.

The ode less travelled by Stephen Fry, 2005

Stephen Fry begins this beginner’s guide to reading and writing poetry by confessing:


This is an embarrassing confession for an adult to make. In their idle hours Winston Churchill and Noel Coward painted. For fun and relaxation Albert Einstein played the violin. Hemingway hunted, Agatha Christie gardened, James Joyce sang arias and Nabokov chased butterflies. But poetry?”

He goes on to state:

“I believe poetry is a primal impulse within us all. I believe we are all capable of it and furthermore that a small, often ignored corner of us positively yearns to try it. I believe our poetic impulse is blocked by the false belief that poetry might on the one hand be academic and technical and on the other formless and random. It seems to many that while there is a clear road to learning music, gardening or watercolours, poetry lies in inaccessible marshland: no pathways, no signposts, just the skeletons of long-dead poets poking through the bog and the unedifying sight of living ones floundering about in apparent confusion and mutual enmity. Behind it all, the dread memory of classrooms swollen into resentful silence while the English teacher invites us to ‘respond’ to a poem.”

Before explaining:

“I have written this book because over the past thirty-five years I have derived enormous private pleasure from writing poetry and like anyone with a passion I am keen to share it.

This is not the only work on prosody (the art of versification) ever published in English, but it is the one that I should have liked to have been available to me many years ago. It is technical yes, inasmuch as it investigates technique, but I hope that does not make it dry, obscure or difficult- after all, ‘technique’ is just the Greek for ‘art’. I have tried to make everything approachable without being loopily matey or absurdly simplistic.”

After slowly making my way though The ode less travelled, I’m happy to say Fry has succeeded in writing an entertaining, informative and inspiring poetry primer. It is divided into four chapters- Metre, Rhyme, Form and finally Diction and Poetics today. Each chapter explains things clearly and concisely and is illuminated by examples of poems good and bad and challenging exercises.

Fortunately for a poetical novice like myself, Fry realizes when the information provided may be getting overwhelming, and leavens things with humour and some decided opinions. For example, in the section on sprung rhythm and its creator Gerald Manley Hopkins:

“It is possible that you come across this mysterious Jesuit priest’s verse at school and that someone had the dreadful task of trying to explain to you how sprung rhythm worked. Relax: it is like Palmerston and the Schleswig-Holstein Question. Only three people in the world understand it, one is dead, the other has gone mad and the third is me, and I have forgotten.”

For future reference, The ode less travelled has a useful metrical table and glossary, a detailed contents and index page and suggestions for further reading. The book’s dedication includes the epigraph:

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains.

The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.

– William Arthur Ward.

For this reader, in The ode less travelled Stephen Fry is a good, superior and great teacher. Having read his book I want to read poetry. I will be starting my foray into reading poetry for pleasure with Milton’s Paradise Lost, and thank Eva for bringing The ode less travelled to my attention via her review.