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 πŸ˜‰ ). 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.Β  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.Β  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, clichΓ©, 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 πŸ˜‰

29 thoughts on “Poetry and Stephen Fry

  1. Thanks for this post, Gabrielle. I keep hearing about this man so I must keep him in mind when I go book-hunting. Being an apprentice poet myself, I have thus far only gone with my gut when writing. Any rules and structures learned years and years ago have flown the coop. Hope I can find a copy of this particular book.

    1. Thanks adeeyoyo. It’s a pretty dense book regarding meter etc., but then he skims over some key areas like the development of metaphor, simile, allusion, voice etc. There are better introductory books on poetry around, if that is what you are after – maybe I’ll cover some of those soon. You can buy them on amazon.com – I am in a rural area so don’t have access to bookshops that often.

      1. I find books in this country prohibitively expensive and only frequent second-hand book shops. That was what I was most looking forward to when I planned my UK trip towards the end of last year – which failed to materialise.

        1. I’ll did out a few titles and pass them on to you. Amazon.com does have the advantage of being cheaper (well in Australia at least) than in bookshops and quick delivery – you can even get second hand books that way – on the internet adeeyoyo πŸ™‚

  2. Sounds a bit daunting…dullness, over-ambition and self-indulgence have well and truly installed themselves at my place lately…must be like killing dust mites…!

  3. I had almost never a problem to work on the scales – until i realised i don’t know what to do with them.

    I totally agree with what you say he said about practice and learning. if only it would have been easy.

    1. I don’t suppose getting good at any ‘art’ is easy – opera singers, orchestral musicians, great artists – years of dedication and practice and honing of skills, on top of the inherent talent which they must have (such as ear for music, coordination, etc.,).

  4. I’m a Stephen Fry fan as well, so thanks for the post on his book about poetry – I’d not heard of it before (the book, not poetry!).

    Poetry must be one of the least understood art-forms, so it’s always good when someone with a popular profile does something about the broader populace becoming engaged with it.

    Being a fiction writer, I have a love-hate relationship with poetrt. I love the idea of it, and there are times when I end the day in bed with a poetry book, because I just want some good words in my head, and half an hour of unlocking a poem can be a wonderful thing.

    But then there’s the aloofness and, yes, the pretension and it can all go up in smoke for me.

    However, when done well, poetry can make your heart sing and your blood boil.

    ee cummings, Philip Larkin, Dorothy poetry – my favourite poetry heroes.

    1. You have good tastes Nigel – haha – I also have a bit of a love hate relationship with poetry and also hate the pretension that is sometimes found (and if the book wasn’t written by Stephen Fry I may have stopped reading after the first chapter, while exclaiming ‘pretentious twat!’) but there is also pretension in the other arts and that doesn’t stop me loving them. I would like poetry to be accessible to the general population, and some styles like bush poetry and children’s poetry, are more accessible, but some stuff is inaccessible but precious to those who study it (I remember only understanding some famous poems after much explanation and reading of study notes).

    1. I hope you can find it bluebee – I’m not really sure it is in all independent stores (I just said that because of Graham Nunn’s blog post about the value of independent book stores ;). I live for QI (though I wish he would have more females on the show) – it cracks me up severely and I am always amazed at the so called ‘facts’ that he shows are not facts at all – like that the colour blue used to be the preferred colour for girls and pink for boys – who knew – haha.

    1. No worries Mark – he is a bit of a purist and fails to cover free verse, which is a bit of a cop out – but there you have it. His ‘voice’ is through the whole book, which I liked.

  5. I think that too many people are too lazy to study form etc before they start writing poetry, so this sounds like a good book, I have heard of it before but haven’t got round to buying or reading it. Maybe i will look out for it now…

  6. Stephen Fry is wonderful! I’ve often seen this book about the place and thought it would be an entertaining, if not educational, read.

    πŸ™‚

  7. Hi Gabrielle, very nice to meet you. I just read Fry’s book late last year (also a fan). An enjoyable read with his humour and charm so present in delivery. Really good review by the way.
    Andrew

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