I gave up writing rhymed poetry a long time ago. In grade school I composed limericks about other people at recess (not an avenue to popularity, believe me); in college I once wrote a truly awful sonnet that included the word “manacle,” and to my everlasting shame, I entered it in a poetry contest. Since then the only metered and rhymed poetry I’ve attempted have been jokey re-writes of song lyrics for birthday celebrations. But no more. I stumbled upon a wonderful book that’s convinced me it’s worth trying some of the traditional forms once again. Not because I’m going to be the next Robert Frost, but because if something was really, really fun in fifth grade, it’s worth trying again decades later. (This dictum does not apply to prank phone calls and tabulating rules for secret clubs.)
The book is The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. Fry is one of those British geniuses for whom one profession is not enough.* Actor, journalist, playwright, novelist, comedian, film director, and these days a Tweeter with 2 million followers, he’s the type of person who makes everyone else feel like a mushroom, colorless and dopey.
Subtitled Unlocking the Poet Within, the book opens with Fry’s “embarrassing secret”: he writes poetry. He claims to write average poetry (but I have my doubts) and compares his hobby with those of friends who build boats or play instruments. You don’t have to be a master to enjoy writing poems. “In an open society,” he writes, “everything the mind and hands can achieve is our birthright. It is up to us to claim it.”
With a series of exercises and engaging tutorials on meter and rhyme, Fry encourages his readers to write their own poems. “Talent is inborn but technique is learned,” he says. Like a ballet teacher breaking down a dance sequence into steps, Fry walks the novice poet through traditional forms of poetry. He begins with an exercise in unrhymed iambic tetrameter, and a few chapters later is demanding a rondeau redouble.
Still hesitant to versify? Fry breaks down the reasons you may be resisting:
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. It seems to many that while there is a clear road to learning music, gardening or watercolours, poetry lies in inaccessible marshland: no pathways, no signposts, just the skeletons of long-dead poets poking through the bog and the unedifying sight of living ones floundering about in apparent confusion and mutual enmity. Behind it all, the dread memory of classrooms swollen into resentful silence while the English teacher invites us to “respond” to a poem.
Fry might be vaguely familiar to you if you’ve seen The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (he was the narrator) or the television series Jeeves and Wooster (he was Jeeves). Look for him as Robert Downey Jr.’s older brother in the upcoming Sherlock Holmes sequel.
(*Clive James, author of my favorite laugh-out-loud read, Unreliable Memoirs, is another of this type.)