The Ode Less Travelled, by Stephen Fry

Looks like a job for Negative Capability Brown

By Stephen Knight
Sunday 20 November 2005 01:00

Ahow-to manual for would-be versifiers, The Ode Less Travelled will annoy some poets, and not just because its sales are bound to outstrip their own efforts. For Stephen Fry, too many of them "default to a rather inward, placid and bloodless response to the world", producing "dreary, self-indulgent, randomly lineated drivel". In case we miss the point, Fry brandishes critical terms like "arse-dribble" for emphasis.

The cure Fry proposes is a return to the poetry of traditional metres and forms; his book runs through the options, pausing to set the reader a series of uninspiring exercises. Lest we confuse him with Auberon Waugh, who campaigned for "proper" poetry to so little effect in the pages of The Literary Review, Fry does acknowledge an enjoyment of Modernists such as Eliot and Pound; but there is deliberate Blimpishness here, archly reinforced by the book jacket's illustration of a quill and ink-pot.

Stephen Fry's own jokey verses describe the various forms - "The TERZA RIMA mode is very fine, / Great Dante used it for his famous text; / It rhymes the words in every other line" - but he coyly withholds his own poetry (rather than emulating Charles Atlas, who advertised the success of his regimen with his own physique). Nevertheless, there are enough insights in the book to suggest that it was written out of Fry's own practice. He understands, for example, the difficulty of writing truly free verse, has learnt that form can engender content, and appreciates the art that conceals art. There are established poets who write as if none of this has occurred to them.

Unfortunately, Fry often undermines his best efforts. Too much of the verse he quotes is illustrative but feeble; John Payne and W E Henley are one thing, but even Dorothy Parker comes off badly: "My heart beats low in loneliness, despite / That riotous Summer holds the earth in sway. / In cerements my spirit is bedight; / The same to me are somber days and gay."

The Ode Less Travelled rightly argues for the continued relevance of form, but why the scarcity of living poets who utilise the very forms it extols? It is, of course, easier to find gold if time has done the sifting; harder to pan for it yourself. The strangest omission is Paul Muldoon, whose experiments over the past 30 years include a number of distinctive sonnets and extraordinary variations on the villanelle and sestina.

Fry's caricature of the teaching of poetry ("Just express yourself. Pour out your feelings") is as superannuated as his roster of poets, and is easily refuted by a glance at, for instance, the Arvon Foundation's 2005 programme, which offers courses on "poetic structure and form" and "the way the various techniques of form, rhyme, metre and address can actively aid the imagination". Even Fry's argument that formalism is a remedy for bloodlessness is flimsy; Sharon Olds, CK Williams and August Kleinzahler, American poets readily available in this country, write in a free verse that is anything but anaemic.

On the other hand, Christopher Reid, a formally adroit English poet, employs an artful, childlike diction. Moreover, Fry's claim that one disadvantage of ignoring tradition in order to go your own way is that it is "fantastically difficult and lonely" misunderstands poetry itself. Poets have always been fascinated by what's difficult, and few are as clubbable as Stephen Fry. Tumbleweed blows down poetry's main street; its saloon doors flap in the wind.

In the end, though, the most irksome element of this book is its zealous author, "the man who publicly disports himself in assorted ways" (Stephen Fry on Stephen Fry) or "the stupid person's clever person" (Radio 4's Deadringers on Stephen Fry). Negative capability, "the poetic ability to efface self", as the glossary has it, is not one of Stephen Fry's talents. From the book's cap-and-bells title to its attention-seeking prose peppered with spurious footnotes, insistent italics, hectoring instructions and camp asides, we are never allowed to forget that the author is Stephen Fry: "GET YOUR PENCIL OUT", "Oo-er, sounds a bit scary", "Well, haven't we learned a lot!" Perhaps it is uncharitable to find this tomfoolery so strained; it is, at least in part, symptomatic of a defensiveness underlying the whole project.

For whom is this slightly embarrassed, very British book intended? If you believe English poetry took a wrong turn about 90 years ago, fancy that you can do better, and enjoy being barked at by a logorrhoeic polymath/dilettante (take your pick), then it could be you.

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