An Ode Too Far? Book Review of Stephen Fry’s “The Ode Less Travelled”

The Ode Less Travelled

What better book for The Reluctant Twitterer to review than one about poetry, and written by twitter icon and celebrity supertweeter Stephen Fry?

The Ode Less Travelled sets out to unlock the hidden poet in the reader. It worked for one reader at least. The book started out with one big advantage, and several handicaps. In the folklore of publishing, there are checklists of factors which reduce the chances of a book’s success. A technical diagram, an equation, a mathematical formula would all be mostly on the debit side. The Ode Less Travelled has all three potential barriers to commercial success. On the other hand, these may be out-trumped by a celebrity author.

‘OK, Steven’ I can hear the cornered publisher concede ‘you want us to do your poetry book, we’ll do it. But next time how about an epic journey? How about you follow the American election campaign like Simon Sharma?’ So Stephen gets to do his book on poetry, before the multi-media package of book add TV series for the BBC.

Anyway, The Ode Less Travelled gets published. As I indicated, its declared aspiration is to encourage would-be poets to have a go, and it worked for one reader at least. It got me out of the closet. No, not what you might think. For many years I have been a closet poetry writer. A reluctant poet if you like. Fry addresses just such closet poets as myself with the beguiling argument that it’s OK to be known as a practicing poet. It’s OK particularly because you can write poetry for your own gratification.

Like singing in the bath, you don’t have to be good at writing poetry to feel good about doing it. Indeed, if you are writing for yourself you are also the first and last important critic of your work.

I was given the book as a Christmas present. I dipped into it, not quite in the spirit of self-study advocated by its author. But then, a year later, I became interested in, and began writing about social media.

For whatever reason, my reluctant twittering came out partly in verse. I have Stephen Fry to thank for that.

I don’t know why
But Stephen Fry
was sitting on my shoulder.
Although perverse
I wrote in verse
His book had made me bolder

So there you have it. A satisfied customer. I now go back to the book from time to time for its additional merits as a guide to poetic form. Call me ungrateful, but I also find the book a rather frustrating travel companion. As another poet almost wrote

Ingratitude, more strong than traitor’s arms, then vanquished him

Fry is far too bright to be unaware of the technical difficulties he faced in getting to his alleged goals. He actually refers to the dangers of embarrassing over-chumminess. Well there is a bit of that. More embarrassing for me was the tone of the old school teacher (or quiz-master) jokingly urging his students (panellists) to study (behave) in the correct way. Read Out Loud. Don’t go any further until you’ve Done Your Exercises. [RT @ Stephen Fry on Twitter: #LOL, now its #ROL].

A more disturbing and ungracious thought persists. The book is far too comprehensive. Too much effort has been expended in an effort to cover all the multitude of poetic forms that might be found in a good anthology of poetry. This aspiring poet would have settled for the unravelling of the secrets of the most familiar forms of poetry encountered from childhood. But the book continues remorselessly as Mr Fry introduces us to more and more obscure poetic forms which are close to extinction.

More seriously, he draws on two main sources of illustration. His own efforts, and those of other poets. As he graciously admits, his own verses are there to illustrate basic poetic forms, and make no claims of creative merit.

I took it into my head that SF had hit on a wheeze. Suppose you are indeed a closet poet. You have a notebook full of your efforts, five finger exercises, as well as four finger and three finger ones. And in addition you have the influence to place them with a publisher. Well, I know what I’d do. I’d write the book and include in it all those otherwise unpublishable efforts.

As I said, that’s utterly ungrateful. Perish the thought. Heaven forbid. Just put it down to sheer poet envy.


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