Stephen Fry

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within

“You can never read a poem too slowly.”

Gentle, supportive guidance from the inimitable Stephen Fry (b. 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. Any aspiring poet or reader of poetry should own this book, read it, and underline it thoroughly. (I feel sheepish not writing any of this advice in verse.)

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.

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).

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 easily understood lessons.

Stephen Fry