But the useful bits are cluttered with posturing chat. Stephen Fry says prose has no cadences, which rather undercuts the way he talks up language: his own prose prances, shouts and wheedles in an uneasy mix of condescension, bullying, forced matiness and arch humour. If you write while high or drunk, you think you've got "poetic nectar, but it turns out to be poetic arse-gravy". "Ode", he says (in several of his de haut en bas asides), "comes from Greek odein, to chant."
Odein? There's no such verb. Why go on about Greek if you're going to get it wrong? It won't help anyone unlock their inner poet. "Ode" comes from aoide, "song", related to aeidein, "to sing".
Fry's readers are ignorant creatures who need to be shouted at. On a key problem in writing a poem (where to break the line), he imagines one suggesting a break at a comma, where you take a breath: "NO, DAMN YOU, NO! A THOUSAND TIMES NO! THE ORGANIZING PRINCIPLE BEHIND THE VERSE IS NOT THE SENSE BUT THE METRE. Metre is the primary rhythm, the organized background against which the secondary rhythms of sense and feeling are played out."
I hope the worm might turn here. Let the reader stand up and say, "No Stephen! A poem's energy comes from equal balance between the two". And then throw Robert Frost into the ring, who said: "The poet must learn to get cadences by skilfully breaking the sounds of sense, with all their irregularity of accent, across the regular beat of the metre. Verse in which there is nothing but the beat of the metre we call doggerel. Verse is not that. Nor is it the sound of sense alone. It is a resultant from these two."
Fry recently announced that poems in a competition he judged were terrible, offered unrhymed lines of his own, and explained how bad they were. Both points were supposed to prove that all today's poetry is "arse-dribble". But auditions for the Dibley Xmas panto, or me murdering a Shakespeare soliloquy backwards at the Almeida, would hardly prove today's professional acting standards are low. The arguments are cock-eyed, and the aggressive ignorance of good modern poetry, evident through this book, is very sad.
Fry says bad poetry comes from laziness but has not taken the trouble to read openmindedly the extraordinary variety of good modern poems. He simply ticks trainspotterish boxes on who does what metre-wise. Such a shame. Such a waste of an opportunity - a book of forms from someone of Fry's stature, and enormous love of poetry.
This book will help no one write good poems. It presents metre and form as a penal code not a resource, and poetry as a clever-defensive game: some weird Hellenic cricket match full of people in union-jacked togas chanting odein. Or a military drill, whose letter-of-the-law "rules" may boss words about but never let them discover new truths.
If you truly want to write good poems, try the brilliant handbook Writing Poetry and Getting Published by Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams. It gives genuinely useful exercises and models, technical secrets, and tips on unlocking the imagination. Also, on how to test in yourself the truth of what you write: an aspect Fry does not address. There's no cute title, but it does what it says on the tin.
Ruth Padel's 'The Soho Leopard' was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize; '52 Ways of Looking at a Poem' (Vintage) was based on her 'Independent on Sunday' columnReuse content