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.
Should You Buy?
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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