Tuesday, April 24, 2007

While repetition in poetry can add quite a lot to certain types of poems, that is not today's topic. It may, however, be tomorrow's topic if I can get permission from a friend to post his poem and discuss it.

Today, I've decided to wholesale cut and paste into the body of this post an older post on one of the most entertaining books on poetry I've ever had the privilege to read. The name of the book is The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry, and it is all about writing poetry. But it only about the subset of poetry known as form poetry.

If you'd like to know why, then Fry tells you in an essay that begins on page 172 and terminates on page 178, entitled "What is Form and Why Bother with It?: Stephen gets all cross". Here are some of my favorite bits from this essay:

Poetic forms too can be cross-bred, subverted, made sport of, mutilated, sabotaged and rebelled against, but HERE IS THE POINT. If there is no suggestion of an overall scheme at work in the first place, then there is nothing to subvert or undermine: a whole world of possibility is closed off to you. (173)

He then launches into a most excellent, thoughtful and thought-provoking bit about Ezra Pound, "generally regarded as the principal founder of modernism." Pound essentially "declared war on allexisting formal structures, metre, rhyme and genre. We should observe that he was a researcher in Romance languages, devoted to medieval troubadour verse, Chinese, Japanese, Sicilian, Greek, Spanish, French and Italian forms and much besides. His call to free verse was not a manifesto for ignorant, self-indulgent maundering and undeducated anarchy." (173-74)

Fry believes that these days, it is some of Pounds's ideas that have become dry and boring, then goes on to call much of the free verse written in the past 50 years or so "prose-therapy" or "emotional masturbation", and even "auto-omphaloscopy" ("gazing at one's own navel"). His conclusion? "Let us reserve the word 'poetry' for something worth fighting for, an ideal we can strive to live up to." (175)

As an example of the sort of free verse that he's condemning, Fry concocts a bit of free verse that is not atypical of much of what you'll hear at some local readings. Lots of wordplay in the form of new verbs, odd line breaks, highly creative punctuation, etc. And immediately after presenting the poem, which some would claim is a good poem because of the very things I've just mentioned, Fry says:

There's the problem. The above is precisely the kind of worthless arse-dribble I am forced to read whenever I agree to judge a poetry competition. . . . It is like music without beat or shape or harmony: not music at all, in fact. (177)

I've only touched on bits and bobs from this particular essay in hopes that it will tempt you to read the entire thing. And I'm not just talking about those of you who actually write poetry (or want to read about writing poetry). I'm talking about anyone out there who is writing anything, because Fry's authorial voice is omnipresent in this book, and it's riveting.

And now, as promised, a reprise of my post from over at my LiveJournal blog last September:

Last month, a somewhat unlikely poetry teacher emerged on the international scene. Known for his acting skills (most notably as Oscar Wilde in Wilde), Stephen Fry has crafted a book that explains poetry and the poetic forms in a highly accessible way. I first read of his book in a book review in the New York Times. At the time, I semi-scoffed. But when I reached the bookstore the other day, this volume called to me from the table up front, and I had to have a look-see. And then I bought it.

Who is this book for?

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within is recommended reading for the following sorts of people:

1. People who feel stupid about poetry. They've read some poems in school, and sort of like the idea, but feel that they don't know enough to read and/or write it. Or they remember being flogged with terms like "iambic pentameter" while reading Shakespeare, but never quite knew what the heck the teacher was talking about.

2. People who would like to write poems, but aren't sure how to get started. Sure, maybe they've scribbled some ideas down randomly. And hey, isn't that what "free verse" is? Only their verses don't really seem as coherent as some of the poems they've read. So the would-be poets feel, well, silly.

3. People who write poetry, but would like to understand their craft better. These folks already write some form of poetry -- rhymed couplets, perhaps, or limericks, or sonnets, but they're stuck in a poetic trench. They can write in their chosen form, but they aren't entirely certain how to make their poems truly shine and take their writing to the next level.

4. People who write poetry, but would like to expand into a different category of poetry. Maybe they write free verse and would like to work in classic forms. Or vice versa. Or they'd like to move out of rhyme into non-rhyme. Or whatever.

5. People who like to learn and/or be entertained.

If that sounds like an awfully comprehensive list of potential readers, then you've gotten the point.

The stated purpose of this book is to give people the confidence and ability to start writing poetry, but it does more than that: it builds knowledge and self-esteem. It entertains you while making your mind stretch, even if just a wee bit. And Fry manages to make things like iambic pentameter accessible to the everyday reader, both through careful explanation, through writing exercises, and through example. On page 18, he presents a list of what he came up with during timed free-writing of iambic pentameter. My personal favorites:

I haven't time to take your call right now,
So leave a message when you hear the tone.


Your sharpness rips my paper heart in two.

But he doesn't stop there. This is one of the most comprehensive teaching texts on poetry I've had the opportunity to pick up, and one of the best, if by best you mean "use-able, accessible and comprehensible." The book is split into four sections: metre, rhyme, form, and "diction and poetics today". Within each section are lessons and activities, as well as explanations and observations galore.

And Fry is a pleasure to spend time with. He's not stuffy or "academic" in tone. If he were, he wouldn't have labelled a bad free verse poem he wrote as an example of, well, bad free-verse poems "worthless arse-dribble". He says later on the page:

My 'poem' is also pretentious, pretentious in exactly the way much hotel cooking is pretentious -- aping the modes of seriously innovative culinary artists and trusting that the punters will be fooled. Ooh, it's got a lavender reduction and a sorrel jus: it's a pavane of mullet with an infusion of green tea and papaya. Bollocks, give me steak and kidney pudding.

This one is well worth your money and, more importantly, your time.

1 comment:

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

I like Stephen Fry more and more. I first knew him in his various roles in Blackadder and later in Jeeves and Wooster. I'm not surprised that the man can write. He's still my favorite Duke Wellington of all time.