Books : reviews

Stephen Fry.
The Ode Less Travelled: unlocking the poet within.
Arrow. 2005

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 26 April 2015

Stephen Fry believes that if you can speak and read English you can write poetry. But it is no fun if you don’t know where to start or have been led to believe that Anything Goes.

Stephen, who has long written poems, and indeed has written long poems, for his own private pleasure, invites you to discover the incomparable delights of metre, rhyme and verse forms. Whether you want to write a Petrarchan sonnet for your lover’s birthday, an epithalamion for your sister’s wedding or a villanelle excoriating the government’s housing policy, this book will give you the tools and the confidence to do so.

Brimful of enjoyable exercises, witty insights and simple step-by-step advice, The Ode Less Travelled guides the reader towards mastery and confidence in the Mother of the Arts.

I know essentially nothing about poetry. We never really studied it at school, and I was never the least bit interested in what little we did do. I do remember one occasion when we were asked to write a poem for homework. I had no idea what to do, so I wrote some flowery prose, and broke the lines up arbitrarily. My homework was returned with the ominous words see me scrawled at the bottom. I went up to the teacher, who looked at me in some bemusement, and said “this is really rather good”: words never said to me in an English lesson before, or after, for that matter. I went back to my seat with my opinion of poetry, and my teacher, confirmed. I suppose it could have been worse: it might have encouraged me and set me on the road to doggerel. Since then my only excursion into that realm has been to compose a couple of limericks for a competition at the 1995 Z User Meeting, held in Limerick; I didn’t win.

Stephen Fry, however, is in love with poetry, and that love permeates this book. But he does something my English teachers never did; he describes the mechanics: the nuts and bolts of metre and rhythm, rhyme and structure. Now this is interesting.

Fry wants to teach you how to write poetry, so there are exercises throughout. I confess, I didn’t do any of these; I’m a theoretician, not an experimentalist, and have no desire to start writing poetry. However, I can see how they would help get someone writing. And they’re not all “write a poem about beauty”, they are “write something in iambic pentameter” (I now know what that means!), or “write something in the form of a sonnet”: exercises in structure, not in some airy fairy aesthetics that I could never grasp. And even when he does suggest a subject, it is some prosaic everyday thing, like a headline from today’s news website, or daytime television programmes.

This book would make a wonderful school book for someone like me, more interested in the mechanics of things than in, well, poetry. It could make the whole enterprise a complicated word game, which would definitely appeal to nerds; then meaning, feeling, and emotion could be snuck in later, if necessary.

On second thoughts, it might not do well as a school text. Some of the examples in the limericks section are extremely obscene.

On third thoughts, that would probably make it popular with school children, if not their parents (those who fail to recall what they themselves heard in their school playgrounds).

The whole book is written with a lightness of touch, and a love of language. It is peppered with lovely little historical, geographic, and linguistic tidbits, and some great rants (especially the section Stephen gets all cross). I particularly like the way Fry writes little example poems to describe a particular structure in that very structure. He continually says his poems aren’t good, though they seem fine to me. But then, what do I know? Well, even I can tell that two examples of poems to written commemorate disasters, McGonnagal’s infamous “The Tay Bridge Disaster” and Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, are at opposite ends of the quality spectrum. Fry explains why one works so much better than the other.

So although I still know essentially nothing about poetry, I know a good deal more than I did before reading this very enjoyable book.

Oh: a useful glossary. But no index.