Stephen Fry believes that if one can speak and read English, one can write poetry. In The Ode Less Travelled, he invites readers to discover the delights of writing poetry for pleasure and provides the tools and confidence to get started. Through enjoyable exercises, witty insights, and simple step-by-step advice, Fry introduces the concepts of Metre, Rhyme, Form, Diction, and Poetics.
Most of us have never been taught to read or write poetry, and so it can seem mysterious and intimidating. But Fry, a wonderfully competent, engaging teacher and a writer of poetry himself, sets out to correct this problem by explaining the various elements of poetry in simple terms, without condescension. Fry's method works, and his enthusiasm is contagious as he explores different forms of poetry: the haiku, the ballad, the villanelle, and the sonnet, among many others. Along the way, he introduces us to poets we've heard of but never read. The Ode Less Travelled is not just the survey course you never took in college, it's a lively celebration of poetry that makes even the most reluctant reader want to pick up a pencil and give it a try.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
How to Read this Book
There is no getting away from it: in about five minutes' time, if you keep reading at a steady rate, you will start to find yourself, slowly at first and then with gathering speed and violence, under bombardment from technical words, many of them Greek in origin and many of them perhaps unfamiliar to you. I cannot predict how you will react to this.You might rub your hands in glee, you might throw them up in whatever is the opposite of glee, you might bunch them into an angry fist or use them to hurl the book as far away from you as possible.
It is important for you to realise now, at this initial stage, that — as I mentioned earlier — most activities worth pursuing come with their own jargon, their private language and technical vocabulary. In music you would be learning about fifths and relative majors, in yachting it would be boom-spankers, tacking into the wind and spinnakers. I could attempt to 'translate' words like iamb and caesura into everyday English, but frankly that would be patronising and silly. It would also be very confusing when, as may well happen, you turn to other books on poetry for further elucidation.
So please, DO NOT BE AFRAID. I have taken every effort to try to make your initiation into the world of prosody as straightforward, logical and enjoyable as possible. No art worth the striving after is without its complexities, but if you find yourself confused, if words and concepts start to swim meaninglessly in front of you, do not panic. So long as you obey the three golden rules below, nothing can go wrong.You will grow in poetic power and confidence at a splendid rate.You are not expected to remember every metrical device or every rhyme scheme: I have included a glossary at the back. Just about every unusual and technical word I use is there, so if in doubt flip to the back where you should find an explanation given by definition and/or example.
If you already know, or believe you know, a fair amount about prosody (usually pronounced prósser-di, but sometimes prose-a-di), that is to say the art of versification, then you may feel an urge to hurry through the early sections of the book. That is up to you, naturally, but I would urge against it.The course is designed for all comers and it is better followed in the order laid out. Now, I am afraid you are not allowed to read any further without attending to the three golden rules below.
The Golden Rules
In our age one of the glories of poetry is that it remains an art that demonstrates the virtues and pleasures of taking your time.You can never read a poem too slowly, but you can certainly read one too fast.
Please, and I am on my knees here, please read all the sample excerpts and fragments of poetry that I include in this book (usually in indented paragraphs) as slowly as you possibly can, constantly rereading them and feeling their rhythm and balance and shape. I'm referring to single lines here as much as to larger selections.
Poems are not read like novels. There is much pleasure to be had in taking the same fourteen-line sonnet to bed with you and reading it many times over for a week. Savour, taste, enjoy. Poetry is not made to be sucked up like a child's milkshake, it is much better sipped like a precious malt whisky.Verse is one of our last stands against the instant and the infantile. Even when it is simple and childlike it is be savoured.
Always try to read verse out loud: if you are in a place where such a practice would embarrass you, read out loud inside yourself (if possible,moving your lips).Among the pleasures of poetry is the sheer physical, sensual, textural, tactile pleasure of feeling the words on your lips, tongue, teeth and vocal cords.
It can take weeks to assemble and polish a single line of poetry. Sometimes, it is true, a lightning sketch may produce a wonderful effect too, but as a general rule, poems take time.As with a good painting, they are not there to be greedily taken in at once, they are to be lived with and endlessly revisited: the eye can go back and back and back, investigating new corners, new incidents and the new shapes that seem to emerge.We are perhaps too used to the kind of writing that contains a single message.We absorb the message and move on to the next sentence. Poetry is an entirely different way of using words and I cannot emphasise enough how much more pleasure is to be derived from a slow, luxurious engagement with its language and rhythms.
NEVER WORRY about 'meaning' when you are reading poems, either those I include in the book, or those you choose to read for yourself. Poems are not crossword puzzles: however elusive and 'difficult' the story or argument of a poem may seem to be and however resistant to simple interpretation, it is not a test of your intelligence and learning (or if it is, it is not worth persevering with). Of course some poems are complex and highly wrought and others may contain references that mystify you. Much poetry in the past assumed a familiarity with classical literature, the Christian liturgy and Greek mythology, for example. Some modernist poetry can seem bloody-minded in its dense and forbidding allusion to other poets, to science and to philosophy. It can contain foreign phrases and hieroglyphs.There are literary and critical guides if you wish to acquaint yourself with such works; for the most part we will not concern ourselves with the avant-garde, the experimental and the arcane; their very real pleasures would be for another book.
It is easy to be shy when confronting a poem. Poems can be the frightening older children at a party who make us want to cling to our mothers. But remember that poets are people and they have taken the courageous step of sharing their fears, loves, hopes and narratives with us in a rare and crafted form. They have chosen a mode of expression that is concentrated and often intense, they are offering us a music that has taken them a long time to create — many hours in the making, a lifetime in the preparation.They don't mean to frighten or put us off, they long for us to read their works and to enjoy them.
Do not be cross with poetry for failing to deliver meaning and communication in the way that an assemblage of words usually does. Be confident that when encountering a poem you do not have to articulate a response, venture an opinion or make a judgement. Just as the reading of each poem takes time, so a relationship with the whole art of poetry itself takes time. Observation of Rule One will allow meaning to emerge at its own pace.
Buy a notebook, exercise book or jotter pad and lots of pencils (any writing instrument will do but I find pencils more physically pleasing). This is the only equipment you will need: no cameras, paintbrushes, tuning forks or chopping boards. Poets enjoy their handwriting ('like smelling your own farts,'W. H. Auden claimed) and while computers may have their place, for the time being write, don't type.
You may as well invest in a good pocket-sized notebook: the Moleskin range is becoming very fashionable again and bookshops and stationers have started to produce their own equivalents.Take yours with you everywhere.When you are waiting for someone, stuck in an airport, travelling by train, just doodle with words. As you learn new techniques and methods for producing lines of verse, practise them all the time.
Imagine the above-mentioned are the End User Licence Agreement to a piece of computer software.You cannot get any further without clicking 'OK' when the installation wizard asks you if you agree to the terms and conditions.Well, the three rules are my terms and conditions, let me restate them in brief:
1. Take your time
2. Don't be afraid
3. Always have a notebook with you
I agree to abide by the terms and conditions of this book
0 Agree 0 Disagree
Now you may begin.
Table of ContentsThe Ode Less Travelled
How to Read this Book. Three Golden Rules
How We Speak. Meet Metre. The Great Iamb. The Iambic Pentameter. Poetry Exercises 1&2
II. End-stopping, Enjambment and Caesura. Poetry Exercise 3. Weak Endings, Trochaic and Pyrhhic Substitutions. Substitutions. Poetry Exercise 4
III. More Metres: Four Beats to the Line. Mixed Feet. Poetry Exercise 5
IV. Ternary Feet: The Dactyl, The Molossus and Tribrach, The Amphibrach, The Amphimacer, Quaternary Feet. Poetry Exercise 6
V. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. Poetry Exercise 7. Sprung Rhythm.
VI. Syllabic Verse. Poetry Exercises 8&9: Coleridge's 'Lesson for a Boy'.
Table of Metric Feet
I. The Basic Categories of Rhyme. Partial Rhymes. Feminine and Triple Rhymes. Rich Rhyme.
II. Rhyming Arrangements.
III. Good and Bad Rhyme? A Thought Experiment. Rhyming Practice and Rhyming Dictionaries. Poetry Exercise 10
I. The Stanza. What is Form and Why Bother with It?
II. Stanzaic Variations. Open Forms: Terza Rima, The Quatrain, The Rubai, Rhyme Royal, Ottava Rima, Spenserian Stanza. Adopting and Adapting. Poetry Exercise 11
III. The Ballad. Poetry Exerdise 12
IV. Heroic Verse. Poetry Exercise 13
V. The Ode: Sapphic, Pindaric, Horatian, The Lyric Ode, Anacreontics.
VI. Closed Forms: the Villanelle. Poetry Exercise 14. The Sestina. Poetry Exercise 15. The Pantoum, The Ballade.
VII. More Closed Forms: Rondeau, Rondeau Redoublé, Rondel, Roundel, Rondelet, Roundelay, Triolet, Kyrielle. Poetry Exercise 16
VIII. Comic Verse: Cento, The Clerihew. The Limerick. Reflections on Comic and Impolite Verse. Light Verse. Parody. Poetry Exercise 17
IX. Exotic Forms: Haiku, Senryu, Tanka. Ghazal. Luc Bat. Tanaga. Poetry Exercise 18
X. The Sonnet: Petrarchan and Shakespearean. Curtal and caudate sonnets. Sonnet Variations and Romantic Duels. Poetry Exercise 19
XI. Shaped Verse. Pattern Poems. Silly, Silly Forms. Acrostics. Poetry Exercise 20
4. Diction and Poetics Today
I. The Whale. The Cat and the Act. Madeline. Diction. Being Alert to Language.
II. Poetic Vices. Ten Habits of Successful Poets that They Don't Teach You at Harvard Poetry School, or Chicken Verse for the Soul Is from Mars but You Are What You Read in Just Seven Days or Your Money Back. Getting Noticed. Poetry Today. Goodbye.
Incomplete Glossary of Poetic Terms
What People are Saying About This
"While Mr. Fry's book is aimed at a general audience, it seems particularly well-suited to the lawyer or Web-site designer or homemaker or medical technician whose daily life feels distant from poetry and yet who remembers, with a yearning fondness, the joys of reading Shakespeare or Keats or Frost as an undergraduate. ... Fry understands the saving role that humor can play in any discussion of poetry's mechanics."
ùBrad Leithauser, The Wall Street Journal
Fry is "spot on in his assessment of the allusion-packed, overcooked, dead-on-arrival poems that are often passed of as high literature these days. ...While the comic relief is mostly welcome, Mr. Fry truly shines when ardently defending and explicating the virtues of form ... The Ode Less Travelled is something more than a solid and engaging how-to book. 'Verse is one of our last stands against the instant and the infantile,' Mr. Fry writes in the introduction, and this book is his impassioned, worthy contribution to the cause."
ùClaudia La Rocco, The New York Times
"The Ode Less Travelled is at once idiosyncratic and thoroughly traditional it's filled with quips, quirks and various Fry-isms, yet still manages to be a smart, comprehensive guide to prosody. ... The key to the book's success is its tone, which is joking, occasionally fussy, sometimes distractingly cute, but always approachable. This book works because it gives us a strong perspective without sounding pinched or dogmatic."
ùDavid Orr, The New York Times Book Review
"Of all the poetry guides you're likely to read, this one's probably the most entertainingly written and downright useful. The book is full of technical terms spondee, enjambment, trochee but these are explained so clearly that we very quickly can use them as though we've been doing so all of our lives. The book is an education not only in the mechanics of poetry, but also in its history. An, naturally, it's full to bursting with the author's delightfully impish wit ... Fry's legion of fans will get an enormous kick out of it, and English Lit students will learn more from this one book than they will from a stack of more traditional textbooks."
ùDavid Pitt, Booklist
A "delightfully erudite, charming and soundly pedagogical guide to poetic form ... Fry himself pens intentionally vapid and yet entertaining poems that demonstrate each form's rules and patterning, and ends each lesson with wittily devised exercises for readers. ... Fry has created an invaluable and highly enjoyable reference book on poetic form, which deserves to achieve widespread academic adoption, despite or even because of its saucy and Anglocentric tone."