The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry

  Andrew Knighton    Apr 10, 2018
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry

Level: beginner / intermediate

The Ode Less Travelled is an odd book. Written by British actor, presenter, and comedian Stephen Fry, it tries to make poetry writing accessible not through free expression but through teaching the rules that underlie poetry. It’s an unusual introduction to poetry for the layman and a source of insight into language for other writers.

The Ode Less Travelled doesn’t deal with the imagery and metaphors that are the content of poetry. Instead, it looks at the structures into which these images are fitted. It’s a focus on structure that misses what many people assume poetry to be – the artistic flourishes and bold expressions – in favor of something more constrained. Starting with iambic pentameter and working his way through to the haiku, tanka, and ghazal, Fry shows how different forms of poetry are shaped.

Along the way, he teaches the fundamentals of poetry – metre, rhyme, and form. He shows the reader how each element works and how they are used to give each sort of poetry its distinctive style.

Fry’s aim in the book is to demystify these poetic structures. Whether or not you ever studied these structures in school, he opens up how they work and how to form them. Exercises encourage you to analyse famous poems and write your own. If you like working with structures and plans then it’s a freeing experience. If restrictions fill you with fear, then it might be enough to put you off poetry for life. But very little writing can be achieved without some rules or restraints, and most writers will get something out of this accessible book.

 The biggest benefit for a prose author is that it brings attention to the shape of words and the patterns they form as they come together. It’s about how aesthetics can form atmosphere, another layer beyond the obvious meaning of the words. Studying this can make your writing more refined. Fry provides an accessible introduction to this.

Highlights

  • The first section, on metre, introduces a subject that most non-poets overlook and that can be a powerful tool in writing. Even if you don’t start using iambs and other forms of poetic metre, it’s useful for thinking about the way words work.
  • The example poems clearly illustrate the points made. Classic examples relate the lessons to recognisable culture, while Fry’s own samples show that poetry doesn’t have to be grand or beautiful, making the techniques less intimidating.
  • Fry’s own voice comes through clearly in the writing, making the book a pleasure to read in its own right.

Should You Buy?

Pros

  • Enjoyably written and accessible, this demystifies an esoteric topic.
  • An excellent introductory guide to the fundamentals of metre, rhyme, and form. Because of the informal writing style, this is more accessible than a more academic book.
  • Brings attention to the sound of words, how this shapes passages of text, and how it can be used to influence the emotions of readers. An invaluable tool for writers looking to make their prose more polished.
  •  Exercises and examples make the lessons clearer and help to embed the learning contained in the book.

Cons

  • Thanks to the nature of the subject, it can sometimes feel like the book is becoming bogged down in technicalities, despite its casual tone.
  • Fry’s presentation of his TV personality through his writing sometimes feels forced. The downside of making the book accessible to many readers through informality is that it will annoy readers who prefer their learning presented more objectively.
  •  Some of the views on particular poems that Fry presents as obvious are strongly disputed by poetry scholars – this isn’t the place to start a critique of a particular poem.

If you’re interested in refining the rhythm and flow of writing, in taking it from the workmanlike to the refined, then this book, and the study of poetry in general, contains useful tools and insights. Whether you want to start writing poetry or improve your prose, if you don’t already know the fundamentals of poetry then this is a good place to start.

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