Saturday, September 30, 2006

Review: THE ODE LESS TRAVELLED by Stephen Fry

The New York Times Book Review takes a look at Stephen Fry's attempt to make poetry fun and accessible to the masses. This is no east task, as any poetry teacher could tell you.
[Stephen] Fry, who’s known in Britain as a novelist, comedian, commentator and all-around interesting dude (and in America as the guy who sometimes collaborates with the guy from “House”), has written a book with the cheerfully awful title “The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within” that purports to teach us “how to have fun with the modes and forms of poetry as they have developed over the years.” Or to put it another way, this is J. Evans-Pritchard [from Dead Poets Society] as rewritten by the man who played the sublimely obtuse General Melchett in the “Blackadder” series; which is to say, this is something very odd indeed.

It’s also oddly effective. “The Ode Less Travelled” is at once idiosyncratic and thoroughly traditional — it’s filled with quips, quirks and various Fry-isms (sestinas are “a bitch to explain but a joy to make”), yet still manages to be a smart, comprehensive guide to prosody. It’s organized in three main sections — meter, rhyme and form, with exercises suggested for each — and a smaller concluding section in which Fry gives some general thoughts about contemporary British poetry. It also has a practical, good-natured glossary (a choliamb is a “kind of metrical substitution, usually with ternary feet replacing binary. Forget about it.”) The key to the book’s success is its tone, which is joking, occasionally fussy, sometimes distractingly cute, but always approachable. If Fry thinks the meter of a Keats couplet doesn’t work, he’ll tell you so, and he’s more than happy to admit his own effort at a ghazal is “rather a bastardly abortion.” As is to be expected in any book taking on such a complicated subject, there are a few minor errors. For instance, in a discussion of hendecasyllabic (11-syllable) lines, Fry includes Frost’s “And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver.” (Unlike Fry, Frost is American, and would have pronounced “flower” with two syllables.) But such mistakes are negligible. On the whole, the book is ideal for anyone who’s interested in learning more about poetic forms but doesn’t have an obsessive assistant professor living next door.

Unlocking the Poet Within.
By Stephen Fry.
Gotham. $25.
Read the whole review here.

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