Poetry Toolkit: 'The Ode Less Travelled'
Updated: Feb 3
Most of poetry nowadays? According to Stephen Fry: 'dreary, self-indulgent, randomly lineated drivel'... OUCH! Ouch and yet, I personally think he is quite right.
It wouldn't cross your mind to call yourself a musician while having never bothered to learn how to play any instrument, right? Well, when it comes to poetry these days he has the feeling that too many so called 'poets' just dabble, without having a clue of what poetry is to start with! For that, he blames the triumphal rise of free verse. Not that he dislikes free verse (he is very clear about that!) but he believes it has given an excuse to too many to go pick up a pen and throw words at random, believing poetry is about 'pouring it out' when... it's not! What about technique? What about rules? What about everything that good old fashion prosody encompasses -forms, metres, accentuations, rhymes and else?
Now, before going any further, let's stop right here and clarify something bluntly: there is NOTHING wrong with breaking rules… as long as one knows what the rules are in the first place! (Duh!) Doing otherwise would be like being a pigeon cr@pping all over a chessboard; maybe fun and entertaining, but certainly not good enough to qualify and be a Grandmaster. Well, Stephen Fry doesn't exactly use these words, but just so you get the idea... As far as he is concerned indeed, poetry is a craft that requires apprenticeship, knowing the rules from traditional forms so as to build up on it. He is straightforward:
'(…) initiation into the technique of poetry is all part of becoming a poet and it is pleasurable.'
As I said: straightforward. The emphasis on pleasurable is particularly relevant for, as a down-to-earth amateur, his goal here is not to bore you with dry academic terminology thrown at your face to impress, but to entertain you with a display of all the tools available to traditional poetry, and that make a poem, well, everything but some 'dreary, self-indulgent, randomly lineated drivel'. Ha!
GOSH! How I love this book! It's instructive, incisive, fun, relevant, and despite its strong views, never condescending nor overly strict (just see how he deals with William Blake...).
I love his feel and heartfelt passion for poetry:
'For me the private act of writing poetry is song writing, confessional, diary-keeping, speculation, problem-solving, storytelling, therapy, anger management, craftsmanship, relaxation, concentration, and spiritual adventure all in one inexpensive package.'
I love the core ethos behind it all that is, everyone can write decently if putting in enough effort:
'In an open society everything the mind and hands can achieve is our birth right. It is up to us to claim it.'
I even love how he takes the time to give the novice reader tools to facilitate such efforts, each chapter ending with exercises so as to make it all your own.
Now, you might not end up by writing poetry as he intends you to do here, but full of passion it will at least give you the basic understanding necessary to better appreciate the art, all in a fun and accessible way. And that, alone, is priceless.
Oh! Last but not least, being myself an adept and lover of rhymes at a time when they are often despised by people who should know better, I cannot resist but to quote this:
'If poets shun rhymes, they are closing themselves off from one of the few separate and special technique available to them and that, in my estimation, is foolishly prodigal.'
Yes! A more than refreshing read.
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