Is there anything Stephen Fry can’t do? Actor, comedian, activist and poet…poet? Yes! As he explains in the introduction to The Ode Less Travelled: “I have a dark and dreadful secret. I write poetry.” Practically everyone has written poetry at some point in their lives and most of it probably was dreadful. With this book Fry introduces the reader to the mysterious world of verse through reading and writing exercises designed to build understanding and skill.
Fry has three ground rules: he asks the reader to take the time to read all the sample poems – aloud if possible – to not worry about finding the meaning of a poem but to let it emerge naturally, and to buy a notebook and always carry it.
Fry’s characteristic intelligence and wit shines through in his writing. He starts with the very basics in Meet Metre, explaining how the cadence of English supports the organised rhythm of poetry. He soon has the reader sounding out and then writing iambic pentameter. He includes his own attempts which are so ordinary that the reader is encouraged to try. By the end of the section he's challenging readers to write directions to their home using anapaestic hexameters! Here’s part of his effort:
Just as far as the motorway takes you then straight past the
Take a left on the Narborough Road then a right when you
come to the end.
Note the rhyme in the example. Fry covers rhyme because “…rhyming remains for many an almost defining feature of poetry” even though some people find it “…formulaic, commonplace and conventional”. He explains the basic categories and rhyming arrangements and encourages the reader to experiment.
The reader is now ready to delve into the largest section of the book: form. From common forms like ballads, sonnets and odes to the more exotic pantoums and ghazals, it’s all here with samples and instructions. Aspiring writers can have hours of fun working through the exercises. Frustrated by the thirty-nine line sestina with a set pattern of repetition and a coda? Skip to the next chapter and write a limerick, or try a shaped poem or an acrostic. This section will provide plenty of inspiration – and perspiration.
Fry concludes with a short chapter on modern poetics, or the art of writing poetry. He warns of poetic vices (laziness, vanity) and provides a detailed list of the ten habits of successful poets. He hopes that his readers will read and write poems with “new energy and commitment” and much pleasure.
It would be hard to find a more comprehensive, intelligent yet light-hearted guide to understanding and writing poetry. This book belongs in the library of all would-be poets as well as anyone who wants to gain an appreciation of the genre.
The Ode Less Travelled is not readily available in Australia but is well worth ordering from your favourite bookshop or online.