The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within

by Stephen Fry
Hutchinson £10.99, pp355

Ode-less-travelledCould Stephen Fry be the Delia Smith of poetry? ‘By the time you have read this book,’ he tells us in his preface, ‘you will be able to write a Petrarchan sonnet, a Sapphic ode, a ballade, a villanelle and a Spenserian stanza.’ I can just hear these words on Delia’s lips, only substituting ‘cook’ for ‘write’, omelette for villanelle and boeuf bourguignon for sonnet. How good these poems are likely to be is open to debate. But how many of Delia’s viewers will come up with a Gordon Ramsay-standard omelette or boeuf b?

What she does, famously, is teach people how to boil an egg. And if the poet that, says Mr Fry, lurks in all of us is to be unlocked, the best way to do it is surely the one he’s chosen – by introducing his readers to the ins and outs of prosody; of, to use the key word, form. It is, after all, far easier to write a presentable poem in rhyme and metre than good free verse, as Fry points out. He quotes a line of Pope’s which he says could almost be the motto for his book: ‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance.’ He is right. There is too little art in modern poetry; too little (Carol Ann Duffy and Wendy Cope spring to mind as glaring, glorious exceptions) that is, in Fry’s apt phrase: ‘Formal, elegant and assured.’

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