A Review of Stephen Fry’s ‘The Ode Less Travelled’

With a view to expanding my knowledge of poetic forms, practice and technique, I’ve been reading Stephen Fry’s recently released book: ‘The Ode Less Travelled’. It’s quite a brilliant book for a number of reasons – putting aside any content for a start, it’s written in a comical and dry style that is simply page turning: he even manages to make lists of poetic formula interesting.

But the content isn’t too shabby either. Mr Fry has a lot of opinions that, despite his comic style, I believe the writerly1 world should take very, very seriously, and offers some very practical advice, and viewpoints on poetry, that really helped me. I’ve read a few books by writers and about writing now, including Stephen King’s autobiographical/help-yourself ‘On Writing’, which, for anyone attempting prose or fiction, is a simple must. Both Fry and King’s books are interesting, and although Fry’s is solely concerned with poetry, and King’s with prose, they actually come to similar conclusions, conclusions I’d like to summarise, share and comment on in this blog.

Both Fry and King view writing just like any other profession – a set of skills, terminologies, techniques and tricks all combined with a little originality, and lots of practice, to produce an end product, just as one would build a house, carve a sculpture, or make a chair. Fry takes time to make a point of underlining that, of course, poetry is something that is very difficult to practice, for numerous reasons: it’s subjective for a start, it can be personal, and what’s more he points out that writing, and using language, is something that is normally everyday, subconscious and for the majority functional. Therefore, to suddenly be presented with the idea of using words for something other than the mere conveyance of an opinion, simple narration, or even the explanation of an idea, to be actually trying to create something essentially beautiful is fairly difficult.

As a side note, I personally hold that all good poetry should be ‘beautiful’ even if it is describing or expressing something horrific, ugly or gruesome – look at Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow’ speech, and you’ll see that there is something majestic and utterly profound in the despair and suicidal self-loathing, or at least there is to me….

Anyway, there’s more advice and more ideas in these two books than can really be summarised in a few hundred words, but overall I think the central tenet of both is writing is not, as some might imagine, an airy fairy test of imaginative feats, nor is it bombarding a sentence with as many elevated phrases, disingenuous words, and classical allusions2 as possible. In fact, King is a great advocate of ‘less is more’, and in fact has a formula for editing which runs ‘Second Draft = First Draft – 10%’.

Ultimately many of the suggestions made by both writers are balanced with a clause that says: ‘yes, at some point someone has broken this rule and it’s worked really well,’ Hemmingway is a frequently called upon example of this: he uses far too much dialogue, but he gets away with it. Similarly Blake’s metre is often seemingly randomised (or as of yet not in any configuration regular enough for comprehension), but his poetry is incredible, and ‘Jerusalem’ has become the unofficial anthem ofEngland.

So there are rules but these rules can be broken. However, I think the most important thing that Fry makes a point of, is that you have to know the rules, in order to break them. ‘Free verse’ was originally used by poets who were steeped in knowledge of classical forms. ‘Stream of consciousness’ was originally put into place by those that had spent their lives studying the regular prose of others. By the looks of things, one needs to temper freedom with concision, regularity with imagination, and, the oldest, coldest cliché of them all: practice, practice, practice.

1 Yes, I have made-up the word ‘writerly’, because a) by all accounts it should exist anyway, and b) I’m a poet and therefore invoke sacred rights that permit me to create neologisms

2 Although, I myself am a very big fan of basing my poems around classical mythologies, tales and legends, as anyone reading this blog who has read my poetry and prose will know, but I like to think I do it with a reason…

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2 thoughts on “A Review of Stephen Fry’s ‘The Ode Less Travelled’

  1. Excellent piece – there needs to be more argument for form and discipline: a view that must prevail if poetry is to have any force and avoid what Fry calls “emtional w**k”!

  2. Yes, definitely! In his own very relaxed and satirical way Fry makes some absolutely compelling arguments for form – I think that’s why I enjoyed Andy Brown’s collection so much, he reworks classical forms for his own purposes and the form becomes part of, and indivisible from, the meaning. What is it Archibald McLeish said? – ‘A poem should not mean, but be…’

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