What I’m Reading: The Ode Less Travelled

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.

Poetry by modernist writer H.D. and Scottish poet Robert Burns.

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" by Stephen Fry.

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.

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My messy scansion practice and Fry's cleaner method below.

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.

National Poetry Month!

It’s terrifying, but true: tomorrow is the first day of the fourth month of 2010. But even though it’s shocking and a little bit horrible to think how much of the year has already passed us by, there is plenty to be happy about in April, because even if it is the cruellest month, it is also National Poetry Month! And poetry is definitely something worthy of  a month-long, full-throated and vigorous celebration.

If you’re lacking festive thoughts about how to make poetry a joyous part of the next thirty days, don’t worry! I’ve got a few ideas for you.

First, you can subscribe to the  Poem-A-Day email list offered by poets. org, by clicking here and entering your email address. Then you will magically become, at some point tomorrow morning (or at whatever point in the month you manage to sign up) the proud recipient of many poems, delivered swiftly and silently to your inbox, every single day.

I know a poem a day might sound like a lot…it might sound like a daunting task, a wretched bother, or an awfully grand responsibility, but I urge you to sign up anyways, and try it! You might be surprised how much you enjoy having poetry flooding into your inbox. And even if only one poem out of the thirty really impresses you and takes up permanent residence in your brain, I’m willing to bet you that one will be worth the time you spent skimming the other 29.

Another method of enjoying National Poetry Month would be to actually buy a book of poetry–any book of poetry. A classic, an anthology, some children’s poetry or the one which the snazzy red-and-orange-glossy-spatter-painted cover that you catch out of the corner of your eye while standing in your usual spot in front of the fiction shelves.

Buying the book is a great start, but actually reading it is even better. And when you read, try as best you can to take your time, whatever kind of time that may be. Read as quickly or as slowly as you like, pause, reverse, skip ahead. If you don’t have any time that can be “taken,” try fitting poetry into some already-designated period of your day. Read on the metro, or while you eat lunch. Read out loud to a friend,  to your dog, or to your ceiling.

If you buy a book, open it, and suddenly feel overwhelmed, remember that you have a the whole month (and then, of course, the rest of your life) to read it, so there’s no pressure. (It’s not like the Poetry seminar I took my sophomore year which left me bleeding from the eyes after hundreds–literally hundreds–of pages of confessional poetry in a single evening)

If you happen to have some poetry lying around the house, hidden on a bookshelf behind the His Dark Materials trilogy or nearly forgotten in the basement beside a dead potted plant you couldn’t bring yourself to throw away, dig the book(s) out, dust it off, take into a sunny room (if you get some sun in April, which I hope you do) and read it.

If it’s the reading part that gives you trouble, and not the poetry part, there are lots of other ways to experience poetry. The internet is replete with audio and video versions of famous (and not-so-famous) poems, like this  YouTube adaption of Catullus’ “Poem 5,” Tim Burton’s “Vincent” featuring a version of Poe’s “The Raven,” presentations of poetry readings like this one, with Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, and free audio downloads of Billy Collins reading his own poetry, available from his website, here.

If you try this and want more, try looking up “Poetry Aloud” on Itunes or at your local bookstore, or better yet, check out bookshop and library bulletin boards or your local paper to see if there are any poetry readings coming to your area. I’ve heard tell that at poetry readings, one gets to see real live poets, a species not often spotted (or at least not often cornered)  in the wild.

Another option for celebrating National Poetry Month is to write some of your own poetry. If you’re feeling classically ambitious, start a sonnet; feeling gloomy? perhaps an elegy; feeling concisely profound, then opt for the haiku. Or just try jotting down a few lines on a napkin, scribbling on the back of a recently returned exam, or painting some thoughts onto the walls of your room. I’d urge you, however, to wait at least until next year before getting any tattoos.

Whatever you do in April, I hope you read a bit more poetry than usual, and that you really enjoy reading it, too. You can be sure that I’m going to be celebrating a great deal on my own, and thus you can expect an outpouring of (i.e. several) lovely poetry-oriented posts in the coming weeks.

I leave you with this poem, called “Sound and Structure,” by Barbara Guest. I’ve been mulling over for a few days now and I’m not sure I really understand it yet. But that’s okay, because I’ve got the whole month of April to figure it out.

“Sound leads to structure.” Schöberg.

On this dry prepared path walk heavy feet.
This is not “dinner music.” This is a power structure.
heavy as eyelids.
Beams are laid. The master cuts music for the future.

Sound lays the structure. Sound leaks into the future.

~ Barbara Guest