Per my own recommendation, as part of my celebration of National Poetry Month, I went to one of the Parisian Anglophone bookstores (this one, The Village Voice) to buy a book of poetry, and at the end of the day I wound up, of course, with not just one book, but three, and a lust for several more. I was looking for a collection of poems by Robert Browning, which I didn’t find, but I ended up coming away with a newly released edition of Selected Poems by H.D., edited by Louis L. Martz, and a slim volume of poems by Robert (“Bobby”) Burns, titled Poems and Songs. I also very nearly bought myself Anne Carson’s new translation of the works of Sappho, called If Not, Winter, and my resolve not to buy every book ever was also sorely tempted by Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, by Judith Kroll.
And it obviously goes without saying there were numerous other near-buys as well, since I had to walk upstairs to find the shelves of poetry, past tables of newly released fiction and non-fiction.
After I left The Village Voice with my H.D. and my Burns I walked resolutely homeward, through Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and past Boulevard Saint Michel. I was following the left bank of the Seine eastwards, just across from Notre Dame, when it began to ran, and being coat-less and sans parapluie, I shoved my newly purchased books into my bag and ducked into a nearby shop which just happened to be the perennially-crowded but lovely Shakespeare And Company Bookstore, on Rue de la Bûcherie.
Showing what I believe to have been an astounding amount of self-control, I managed to only buy one book at Shakespeare & Co.: this one,
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, by Stephen Fry, the British author-actor-poet-comedian whose novel, The Hippopotamus, I wrote about earlier this year.
I’ve loved poetry for as long as I can remember, but to be truthful, despite several classes both in high school and college and a lot of reading on my own, I’ve always felt that I was on the outside of the art, both as a practitioner and an admirer. I never learned the lingo, my scansion’s always been awful and my knowledge of poetic forms, despite considerable effort, mediocre at best. Like most arts or disciplines which spawn an erudite elite, poetry comes with a history and vocabulary and structure which is can be either daunting or alluring (or both), depending on what kind of knowledge you most like to pursue.
When it comes to poetry, Fry is clearly in the know – – he’s got the jargon, the references, the sheer abundance of poetry read and poetry thought about that would make him, if not for his crooked nose and his appearances on several of my favorite TV shows, just another member of the poetically-inclined literary elite who’ve always intimidated the hell out of me.
Fry is, in fact, a bit intimidating in his role as author-cum-professor of (amateur) poetry and this book is definitely not for everyone. Here is a simple test designed to see whether this is a book you might possibly want to buy or borrow from a library. Read the following list of terms: scansion, iambs, trochees, Horatian Ode, sprung rhythm, accentual-syllabic verse, Petrarchan sonnet, dactyl. If you have absolutely no desire to know anything about three or more of the these examples of poetic terminology, this is not a book for you. If you’re not interested in learning to write poetry, or if you feel no desire to understand the nuances of the way it works, then again, this book is not for you.
Fry is definitely aware that the subject he’s chosen is a bit intimidating, and the task he’s taking on (“Unlocking the Poet Within) not an easy one. And though he lightens the drudgery of all the spondees and tetrameters with his characteristic dry humor, I think Fry himself would admit that all in all, this is a serious book: a serious book about seriously learning to enjoy poetry, both the reading and the writing of it.
At times Fry strikes me as uncomfortably dogmatic, but I honestly think this is just what comes from being “in the know,”–once you’ve put in the effort to learn the terminology and history of an entire artistic genre, you’re likely to become a bit attached to its forms and traditions. I can feel it beginning to happen to myself already, and I’m only in Chapter 3.
The book is laid out in a series of lessons followed by exercises — yes, exercises — meant to engage the reader in practicing all of the poetic forms Fry introduces along the way. This makes for slow reading, as I spent a good deal of time the yesterday constructing non-rhyming iambic couplets with multiple caesura and enjambment (sounds like fun, huh?) on a variety of topics suggested by Fry himself, including: “Precisely What You See and Hear Outside Your Window,” “Precisely What You’d Like To Eat This Minute” and “Precisely What Chores Nag You.” Fry plays fair: for all the exercises he asks the reader to complete, he offers his own examples first (for instance, in response to the prompt 2 iambic pentameter lines about “Precisely What You Hate About Your Body,” Fry offers “Too many chins and such a crooked nose,/ Long flabby legs and rather stupid hair,” which transforms with the addition of caesura and enjambment to “Three flobbing chins are bad, but worse, a bent/ And foolish nose. Long legs, fat thighs, mad hair.”)
Reading over what I’ve written here, I feel like I’ve been harder on this book than I meant to be, because the truth is I’m really enjoying it, both the reading of it and the writing of terrible poetry, something I haven’t allowed myself to do in years. And I, like Fry, believe that poetry is wonderful and fantastic, and that anyone can write it, and find that experience liberating, exhilarating and utterly worthwhile. It’s a bit of conundrum to me that the mantra “Anyone can (and should) write poetry!” goes hand in hand with a syllabus of highly technical literary terminology and several hundred pages of worth of learning to be done, but it’s a conundrum worth overlooking (or even embracing, if you’ve got the enthusiasm) if you, like me, have always wanted to feel more at home within the words of your favorite poets.
If you liked The Ode Less Travelled: I found The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms to be a really helpful book when I first read it in high school and it’s remained a favorite since then. I’d also recommend The Rules of the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse by the poet Mary Oliver (who also wrote a book called The Poetry Handbook which I haven’t read but imagine is quite good as well). I’m hoping to get my hands on a copy of Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, as I’ve heard it’s excellent.