Book Review: The Ode Less Traveled

The first of my book a week reviews is The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry.

What I knew about poetry before reading this book: I knew there was a thing called iambic pentameter, that Shakespeare wrote sonnets, that there was blank verse and free verse, that I liked a couple of Yeats’ poems and that I really didn’t understand poetry at all—what made a poem a poem and not just a collection of words. In school, poetry was a small part of English or American Lit and you read a couple of the classics and you were supposed to write a poem (God only knows how they expected you to do that given that there was only the most minimal explanation of what one was, really) that was it. The grammar of poetry was never explained, so I had no way of figuring out why or how poetry was made, what made a good poem good or a bad poem bad.

I picked up The Ode Less Traveled on a whim, partly because it’s Stephen Fry and partly because I thought it would be nice to remedy this black hole in my general knowledge. It worked. And the best part is, if you’ve watched enough QI, it’s like having Stephen Fry standing there teaching it to you, which I count as a bonus.

The book is written to those that want to become poets, or improve their poetry. I have no doubt it will work in that capacity, but as I have to get this review out to meet my obligations, I haven’t finished working through the exercises (which I have found to be challenging, but enjoyable). My ability in the poetry department extended to the occasional limerick or haiku, so I look forward to writing a sonnet or villanelle eventually. Possibly with some small amount of literary merit.

Because of the thoroughness with which Stephen Fry goes through everything, I found this to be an excellent way to learn what poetry is, too. Turns out it is not just a rather clipped collection of words that may or may not rhyme.

The book is divided into 3 main parts: Meter (or Metre), Rhyme, and Form.  In Meter we learn how English words are stressed and the various patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables make up a poem’s meter. In Rhyme, we learn about end rhymes, internal rhymes, slant rhymes, consonance and assonance and how to use them. In Form we learn the many stanza forms (thanks Frenchies) and why some poets don’t use them.

TOLT has led me to greater recognition and appreciation of the great poets as now I begin to understand what they were doing. Not just “this appeals to me on some instinctive level” but I see how their use of meter and rhyme (possibly) create a cohesive whole greater than the sum of its words. So, mission accomplished, I think, for both me and Stephen Fry.

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