Duck Duck Book

50 – ode less travelled
01.1.2008, 6:21 pm
Filed under: literature

The ode less travelled : unlocking the poet within / Stephen Fry.
New York : Gotham Books, 2006.
[MCL call number: 808.1 F947o 2006; eight copies, no holds]

I have never been a fan of poetry.  I consider this to be a major personal flaw, but it is one that has been difficult for me to overcome.  When I say that I dislike poetry, what I mean is that I don’t enjoy reading it.  I do enjoy poetry as a performance art; or at least I do when it is above the usual level of coffee shop open mic readings.  But I’ve experimented a little bit, and even when I try reading the exact same poems I have enjoyed in performance, I usually find them impenetrable, or even stultifying. 

This is not because I am indifferent to the beauty of language.  Actually, I find great pleasure in reading a well-formed phrase, sentence, argument, or speech; and I am often quite irritated with awkwardly or impatiently written language.  I am interested in words, their meanings, their use, and their quirks.  I like the feel of speaking, or even thinking, certain words and phrases.  And, perhaps most significantly, I am unhappy when I am not spending at least a bit of each day writing, or thinking about what I will write, or reading something I am planning to write about.  But still, I do not like poetry.  Not only do I dislike reading it, but I suspect that the majority of published poetry is actually crap and not worth anyone’s time.  I say “I suspect” because as I believe I have made clear, I don’t read much poetry and so I am hardly eligible to judge the whole corpus of poetic publishing.

However, I recently came across Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, and saw that it might be a useful tool to help to get over my prejudices regarding poetry.  In his foreword, Fry does not promise to show his readers how to enjoy reading poetry; in fact, he specifically states that his purpose is not to teach poetry appreciation, but instead to instruct in the craft of poetry writing.  But even though it was so clearly not written with my need in mind, I read the book with an earnest desire to take Fry’s tuition.  I paid attention to his basic rule to read every poem out loud (or at least mouth the words to myself), I read his introductions to the various forms, I patiently navigated the many examples of great and terrible poetry he uses to illustrate the history of verse, and I dutifully wrote lines and couplets and eventually whole little stanzas, paying attention to stress and even weaving in rhymes. 

And, while it is true that I managed to make some compositional effort of my own (a selection of my awkward attempts is below) the balance of what I took from the experience of reading the book is heavily weighted towards a greater understanding of the poetic arts, rather than any significant increase in my own technical mastery of them.  Fry did not make a poet of me, but his instructive journey through the major English language poetic forms, their history, and their use, did give me the tools I need to make a more earnest effort to enjoy reading a bit of poetry, should the need arise in the future.

So, I recommend The Ode Less Travelled to readers like me who have trouble with the challenges of reading poetry, or of appreciating it in a satisfying way.  The book will also be useful for budding poets who are seeking an introduction to meter, rhyme, and form, or even as a kind of encyclopedia of the history and structure of English poetry.  But also it is beautifully written, full of engaging illustrative examples, and very funny while still being quite serious.

 * * *

My poetic genius allowed me, with the additional benefit of Fry’s helpful instruction, to come up with such gems as:

Books are for use, librarians all say. 


The laundry flaps on the line in the yard.
I hear the wind rustling through the trees. 

and better still:

Detective Chief Inspector Foyle
wishes he could do more
to help the effort of the war.
It seems he does not know
the good he does each day and night
for Hastings and England
by continuing just to be
as he has always been.


1 Comment so far
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Thanks for the recommendation.

Comment by Nigel Beale

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