I have just finished reading ‘The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within’ by Stephen Fry. I am a big Stephen Fry fan and have immense respect for his intellect, expansive knowledge and talent. If you watch QI (9.30pm, Tuesday on ABC1) or have followed his comedic and writing career, you will know what I mean.
Fry writes poetry (as a private hobby) and believes we are all capable, however he says that ‘talent without technique is like an engine without a steering wheel, gears or brake’. In this book Fry outlines the major metrical forms and poetic structures, in his witty and engaging style (with many a hilarious footnote and aside, and the occasional obscenity). I warn you that it won’t be to everyone’s tastes (and if you don’t like Fry, don’t even go there).
As an apprentice poet, I found the book entertaining, readable, educational and a valuable addition to the ‘how to write poetry’ books I have on my shelf. I won’t say it is the best, but it is far less dry than many of the ‘technical’ books around. Maybe I would feel differently about the book if I didn’t love Stephen Fry so much (there you go, I am being upfront with my bias 😉 ). Objectively, he did receive rave reviews when it was released in 2005.
Fry believes that with any hobby, whether painting, ballet or fly fishing, there is a new jargon to learn, and technique, form and style to master. Poetry is no different. He says ‘only an embarrassed adolescent or deranged coward thinks jargon and reserved languages are pretentious and that detail and structure are boring.’ He gives the example of a child playing the piano – we wouldn’t just expect them to start playing, without guidance, to just express themselves. His argument is that ‘anything goes’ is not the way to go with poetry.
He makes the point that with poetry you must take your time – take your time reading and savouring it (he’s not big on this fast food day and age) – and read out loud wherever possible. He also gives an excellent description of the difference between prose and poetry ‘insert some poetry inside a body of prose and surely people should notice?’
He ends the book with a rant about poetic vices which I found very entertaining and spot on:
Laziness is the worst vice that a poet can have. Sentimentality, cliché, pretension, falsity of emotion, vanity, dullness, over-ambition, self-indulgence, word-deafness, word-blindness, clumsiness, technical ineptitude, unoriginality – all of these are bad but they are usually subsets and products of laziness.
Practice is so important with poetry (like scales in music) and Fry has included exercises at the end of each chapter, which he is constantly telling the reader to do, before moving to the next section (I ignored him as I am want to do with authority figures – sorry Stephen – but I intend to do some at a later date). Unfortunately for my readers, this may mean that you will be reading a villanelle or sestina down the track.
ps. this book can be purchased at an independent book store near you 😉