Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday Reads: The Ode Less Traveled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry

Note: Friday Reads posts aren't formal reviews, but rather recommendations, responses, or just an update on what we're reading in our personal time. We welcome suggestions! We're always looking for good books, so please feel free to use the comment section to recommend your own Friday Reads or even your own books!

I love Stephen Fry. Witty, hilarious, brutally honest, kind to all but himself, charming, intelligent, open-minded, curious, and clever. It's hard to believe that one man could be so many things. I'm sorry to admit that I only recent discovered his true brilliance. Jasie has been a fan of Mr. Fry's for years, but I never really paid attention. I didn't see why I should. If only I hadn't been such a blind, stupid fool for so long! I missed out on years and years of comedy, movies, books, documentaries, and facts. Is there anything more delightful than Blackadder? Yes. Two things, in fact, and Stephen Fry was instrumental in both! A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Jeeves and Wooster. Anyway, this isn't a Stephen Fry fansite, so I'll move on with it, but do let me add that if you aren't familiar with the shows mentioned above, do yourself a favor and check them out. Blackadder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie are both available on Netflix Instant, and Jeeves and Wooster isn't difficult to find.

When I learned of The Ode Less Traveled: Unlocking the Poet Within I knew it needed to be mine. When I found out it was also an audio book, I nearly fainted with happiness! How positively marvelous! Now, it's not that I'm a great poet or that I particularly enjoy writing poetry. I'm not and I don't.

But poetry is an important part of who I am and what I studied, and I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but I never really felt comfortable with it. I have a difficult time with meter, and so scanning poetry for classes (or my MA exam) was always a tedious nightmare. I'm much, much more comfortable with free verse and beat poetry. Perhaps it's not surprising that my favorite poets are Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg.

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

Stephen Fry is a fan of free verse, too, but that's not what The Ode Less Traveled is about. In fact, the book is about the very elements of poetry I find so frightening. He covers meter extensively, and not just iambic pentameter. He covered some metrical feet I've never even heard of, and each chapter ended with exercises to help the reader grow comfortable writing her own poetry. He also covers rhyme--which I find almost as daunting as regular meter when it comes to writing--and poetic form and structure. He takes the time in his patient, all-knowing, and wise way to explain each element of posey, why it matters, and how we can use it to express our thoughts and feelings that normally cannot be expressed at all. He even spent a great deal of time on the subject of Gerard Manly Hopkins, who invented "sprung rhythm" and who was the bane of my life for four months as I prepared for my MA exam. Fry put my mind to rest by quoting Hopkins, who said "Only three people understand sprung rhythm and one of them is dead. The other is mad."

You might be thinking "That's all well and good but I have no interest in meter, rhyme, form, or any of that other stuff." But that's exactly what Fry is counting on. This is not a book of poetry for other poets. As he explains in the beginning, poetry can be a wonderful hobby and form of expression just like any other form of writing, or painting, or music. You can't sit down at a piano and play Mozart on the first day, and nobody expects you to. You practice and practice and study and practice some more. In his book, Fry provides the necessary tools to learn how to be a poet. And in the process, he provides a good foundation for learning how to read poetry.

I think this book should be taught at every university and in every introduction to poetry course. I think it should be the English major's best friend. Clear writing, clear thinking, wit, and gentle British encouragement makes the book a singularly lovely experience. Fry was a teacher once, and while I'm glad he moved on to bigger and better things, I think a part of him will always belong in the classroom. He's a natural teacher.

And now just to prove how effective his methods are, I offer my own humble poem. It's not that great, but nobody said it had to be. It's an accomplishment for me, all the same.

Making News
We gather every day, on time
At special times. In times of sorrow.
Each morning, in mourning, at night
Before we sleep and when we eat.

Watch the headlines, believe the lies
The talking heads must have a point.
If they are lying confused cheats
then why are they the new clergy?

Accountability? What's that?
There exists only one
Word for the newly ordained priests.
Customer. The word is good.

Times are good! We crave a steady
fix of lectures despair
doom and thrilling prophesies to
sate the need for villains.

"You're a commie" "You're a terrorist"
Accusations flung blind
Preaching a new covenant
Hate speech isn't a crime.

It's rubbish, I know. But it's my rubbish and I'm glad I wrote it. Don't hold it against the book.

If you're at all interested in poetry as a writer or a student, or Stephen Fry because you love him, then read this book. It's time well spent. Also, how wonderful is the cover of this book with the D.I.Y on the ink pot?

There's also a lovely, more detailed review at Shelf Love.

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