The Ode Less Travelled

Posted 02 May 2020
Previously posted elsewhere 24 October 2011

Review of The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the poet within by Stephen Fry

A truly splendiferous course in writing poetry. Suitable for freshers and refreshers, novices and initiates, laypeople and upstanding people. And not excluding middling poets (though the excluded middle must, by definition, remain excluded).

Stephen Fry obviously knows an awful lot about language in general and poetry in particular. More importantly for present purposes, he’s a first-rate pedagogue. Why risk getting lost in hyperspace on an online course when you can have a book that starts by assuming you know nothing about poetry and leads you linearly and logically yet leisurely from first principles to an appreciation of metre, rhyme, and form?

My reading pleasure was enhanced by Fry’s measured musings and forthright rants, all written in his inimitable style and all assimilated into the main flow of the text; no sidebars here. (I accidentally typed “sidebard” instead of “sidebars” in the previous sentence. I suppose that’s someone who writes poetry on the side.)

It’s well worth reading the whole book (even if you only skim the information about the forms that you don’t plan to use yourself) because you never know when you might stumble across something interesting or humorous. Be sure to read the glossary too because that’s a work of art in itself.

None of this is to say that working through this book is easy. No-one is born knowing how to write poetry, and there is no substitute for practice. That’s where the exercises come in. I did some of them and found them to be practical and helpful. But unlocking the poet within may involve tearing up paper and swearing and gesticulating. That’s just the nature of the beast. That’s not a criticism of the book. If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that it could use an index. That would make it easier to find specific points of detail again. However, there is a detailed table of contents, so it’s easy to find the main points again.

If you want to write poetry or if you have to study it, get this book. I can’t imagine a better one on the subject.