Stephen Fry

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within

“I believe poetry is a primal impulse within all of us.”

Gentle, supportive guidance from the inimitable Stephen Fry (born August 24, 1957) on unlocking a “primal impulse”: writing poetry.

By gently belaboring technique, practice, and exercises, The Ode Less Travelled steers us confidently through an art form that appears far more daunting than it is. (Hint: it’s all about rhythm.)

When we want to describe anything technical in English we tend to use Greek. Logic, grammar, physics. mechanic, gynaecology, dynamics, economics, philosophy, therapy, astronomy, politics – Greek gave us all those words. The reservation of Greek for the technical allows us to use those other parts of English, the Latin and especially the Anglo-Saxon, to describe more personal and immediate aspects of life and the world around us. Thus to be anaesthetised by trauma has a more technical, medical connotation than to be numb with shock…Metre can be reserved precisely to refer to the poetic technique of organising rhythm, while words like ‘beat’ and ‘flow’ and ‘pulse’ can be freed up for less technical, more subjective and personal uses.

Many wonderful books of poetry fill my shelves—these agents of pause and civility with the help of this superlative guide, I might begin to understand them or at least appreciate the difficult work that borne them.

Former U. S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand wrote “A poem encourages slowness, urges us to savor each word” in his study of poetry and poetic inventions. Fry agrees, “a poem can never be read too slowly.”

We have come to the end of our chapter on metrical modes. It is by no means complete. If you were (heaven forbid) to go no further with my book, I believe you would already be a much stronger and more confident poet for having read thus far.

Photo of Kensington Gardens. Featured in Stephen Fry's "Ode Less Travelled."
Kensington Gardens, London. A place many poets and writers, like Graham Greene, T.S. Eliot, James Baldwin, Ezra Pound, and E.M. Barrie, have nudged along. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In his memoir, The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography, Fry says he is a born teacher. I would agree: his gift is duelling vulnerability and strength, intelligence and innocence, elitism and qualities of every-man.

I believe poetry is a primal impulse within us all. I believe we are all capable of it and furthermore that a small, often ignored corner of us positively yearns to try it. I believe our poetic impulse is blocked by the false belief that poetry might, on the one hand, be academic and technical and on the other formless and random.

Poem by George Orwell Featured in Orwell's "Why I Write" in the Examined Life Library.
A poetic shout by George Orwell, written when he was eleven and published under his real name, Eric Blair. The poem was published on Oct 2, 1914 as a rallying cry for patriotism. © Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard.

Read Fry’s lovely Ode Less Travelled to help understand how the originality of the confessional poetry of Robert Lowell can be seen in contemporary verse of Rupi Kaur and Ocean Vuong, or how the immense longing and pain in Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell” might be connected to the pulsing originality of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.1

A large element of all art is constructed in the form of question and answer. The word for this is dialectic. In poetry this is a familiar structure:

Q: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
A: Thou are more lovely and more temperate.

It is common in rhetoric too:

Ask not what your country can do for you
But what you can do for your country.

There is a deep, instinctive property of so much human communication. In Greek drama and dance it was called strophe and antistrophe, in the liturgy of the Church is known as versicle and response.

One might suggest that this is something to do with the in-and-out pumping of the heart itself (systole and diastole) and the very breath of life (inhalation and exhalation).

John Keats' "Ode to Autumn." Source
John Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” written in 1819 while the poet Keats lived and walked about Winchester. Learn more. Source: The British Library

In this replication of life, poetry can comfort as well as discomfort. About how many things can we say that? Fry tips the balance towards comfort by extending a warm hand and tremendous respect for the dignity of poetry.

I have already addressed the idea of rhyme as a connective, unifying force in poems, but it is worth considering the obvious point that rhyme uses language. Or is, I should say, exclusive to language. Paint can evoke landscape, sculpture the textures of physical form, but neither of these modes of expression has rhyme available to them (save in some metaphorical sense); music, like verse, can do rhythm but it is only poetry that can yoke words together in rhyme. Rhyme may not be a defining condition of poetry, but poetry is pretty much a defining condition of rhyme. If poets shun rhyme, they are closing themselves off from one of the few separate and special techniques available to them and that, in any estimation, is foolishly prodigal.

Treat yourself to the extraordinary rhyme and brilliant contemporariness in Ovid’s The Art of Love. Additionally, Richard Hugo’s wonderful essays on the triggering instinct and emotional place of poetry pair well with Fry’s focus on poetry’s technical gifts.

Stephen Fry