I hadn’t intended to add to The Library so soon, but the book in question is on loan from the library (the actual local library) so I wanted to write this up before the book went back, rather than from memory later on.
A couple of months ago I was invited to an informal writers day organised by one of my friends. Each writer was to provide a short story of less than 2,500 words and a poem. Within an hour of the invitation I was batting around plots and characters for a short story. But the idea of producing a poem made the knees knock. I could count the number of poems I’d written on one hand. Poetry on command – was it possible?
So I did what I always do when I’m worried about something – I went to the library. And there, in the writing section was the answer. The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry (published by Gotham Books). Or The Odeless Traveller as my grandmother calls it.
I am a Jeeves and Wooster addict, both of the books and the BBC series. I therefore have a soft spot for Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. I grabbed the book, hurried home (after the proper borrowing procedures) and stuck it next to my bed where I could look at it confident in the knowledge I had a book to help me through…if I could pluck up the courage to open the cover. I’d looked inside once, seen the words enjambment, ceasura and pyrrhic substitutions far too close together and decided anything with double r followed by an h must be unpronounceable and therefore incomprehensible, like the poetry I was so afraid of.
It’s not that I dislike poetry. I have The Best of Ogden Nash displayed proudly on my bookshelf right next to my computer. I can name several favourite poems off the top of my head with barely any thought. I revel in Shakespeare and even indulge in a little free verse from time to time. But after a rather nasty run in with the poet Burns (who I find completely unintelligible) and a depressing afternoon reading a collection by Christina Rossetti, I found myself intimidated by the whole experience.
So, after I’d renewed The Ode Less Travelled at least once and realised the deadline for the writers day was fast approaching, I decided to read the Foreword.
By the third page I was pleasantly engrossed. Fry immediately acknowledges the cliched view of poetry writing (as an embarrassment to any sensible person who has the lapse in judgment to admit to it) and swiftly moves into reminding the reader of how many people take up painting, pottery, music and other hobbies simply for the fun of it, without expecting to be the next genius in the field. Even if we have no immediate talent for these things, there are ‘How To’ books, classes and shops selling all the accessories. There is jargon to learn and techniques to master. And most of all, there is fun to be had. So why not the same with poetry? Poetry also has jargon to learn and techniques to practice. And there’s plenty of fun and enjoyment to go round.
After such an inspiring foreword, poetry was now far less daunting.
The further I read into the book, the more appreciation I had for the poetry I’d read and the greater my understanding of what makes good poetry good – and therefore what makes my poetry weak. The simple concept of metre, which I had always found intimidating, suddenly made sense. I discovered iambic pentameter and began to tinker with stressed and unstressed syllables. Instead of these things being the gloomy and oppressive realisations I had expected, they were illuminating and liberating. Fry described them in such endearing ways as to make them exciting. After the first chapter I already felt confident enough to take a crack at some of my own poetry.
Unfortunately, because of my delay in starting the book, I have not been able to finish it before it’s inevitable return to the library (the curse of procrastination). But the book served its purpose. I played with four different poems for the writers day, eventually finishing my favourite. On the day my simple submission received laughter and applause (from a very kind audience who probably would have applauded pretty much anything had it rhymed).
Thanks to Stephen Fry’s delightful book, I am far less intimidated by the concept of poetry. In fact, I may just write some more for the heck of it next time I feel the urge.
Why have I included this book in The Library? It’s a wonderful example of how a little knowledge can actually increase your ability to create. If nothing else, it’s an interesting walk through a subject, with a knowledgeable friend by your side teaching you the ropes and inserting amusing trivia in the process. If you feel the need to dabble in poetry or take the proverbial bull by the horns and declare yourself a poet, you need to read this book.
Update 24th February: Even the long suffering librarian could not renew my book any longer so The Ode Less Travelled has finally returned to its home on the public library shelf. Having read more of the book now (but still not having completed it), I would like to add a couple of points to my review. Swear words (including at least one f word which surprised me) are used in later parts of the book and I have since come across several poems used as exercise examples which readers may find inappropriate. Had I read them before I wrote the above, I would not have recommended the book in such glowing terms. Lesson learned; do not recommend something you have not completed. It is, however, an impressive book with very interesting explanations and has taught me much.
February 3, 2010 at 4:15 pm
Sounds like a good book from someone with a sense of humor. I was looking at it on Amazon, and from part of a title in the Table of Contents I read: “Ten Habits of Successful Poets that They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Poetry School, or Chicken Verse for the Soul Is from Mars but You Are What You Read in Just Seven Days or Your Money Back.” This man is funny.
Reading a few pages of it was enlightening. Imagine all those technical names for meters that we use all the time, only unconsciously! (I do not mean to imply that I write poetry in my sleep.)
Thank you for the recommendation!
February 3, 2010 at 10:02 pm
Sounds delectable, can’t wait to check it out.
The other day I decided to write a Haiku, something I havn’t done in years. I even had to get on-line to check how many syllables were required because I couldn’t remember.
The end result was strangly liberating and up-lifting.
I think my Creativity liked it, so the next time she is playing hard to get I will tempt her with a little poetry.
February 9, 2010 at 8:43 pm
@MH: Yes! Stephen Fry is extremely funny. British wit is a wonderful thing.
You’re right, a lot of the terms are really just explaining things we take for granted, or refer to as ‘you know, that thing.’ However, coming to a better understanding of not only their names, but also why they work, makes them far less mysterious and far easier to replicate.
@Amber: I’m glad you and your Creativity had fun with haikus. I am also finding poetry oddly liberating now. It’s always handy to know what your Creativity finds tempting.
June 18, 2010 at 6:36 pm
With the littlest bit of a poem,
from my childhood I have been at hoem.
But each meter’s moniker,
Looking up to me don’occur.
I confess that I simply don’t knoem.
Okay, #1 that was a little bit like bragging, though poetry generally comes easy for me, whereas I would have been sweating bullets to churn out a complete short story. I’m not certain it’s a feat I’ve ever accomplished (depending on one’s definitions).
#2 I do know the name of that particular meter, though I stretched it a bit.
#3 My creativity had fun with that.
June 18, 2010 at 6:38 pm
Correction: My Creativity had fun with that.
P.S. I love Ogden Nash’s style of creatively forcing both meter and rhyme to suit his particular purpose. Definitely one of my heroes.