There’s no shame in admitting you play guitar in your spare time, or that you are an amateur photographer, or an avid baker, or a dabbler in watercolors. But there’s something a little odd in saying you write poetry for fun, says Stephen Fry:
An adolescent girl may write poetry, so long as it is securely locked up in her pink leatherette five-year diary. Suburban professionals are permitted to enter jolly pastiche competitions in the Spectator and New Statesman. At a pinch, a young man may be allowed to write a verse or two of dirty doggerel and leave it on a post-it note stuck to the fridge when he has forgotten to buy a valentine card. But that’s it. Any more forays into the world of Poesy and you release the beast that lurks with every British breast—and the name of the beast is Embarrassment.
Fry, believing that poetry can be a fun way to play with language, wants to give aspiring poetic hobbyists what other hobbyists have in abundance—a guide to improve their play. The point, says Fry, is to have fun, whatever you choose to wax poetic about. Fry’s goal is to give potential poets familiarity with poetic tools and techniques and some practice using them. And he does so in a way that is both fun and informative (even if it didn’t make me into the next John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins).
Each chapter touches on a different poetic technique or form. Fry covers meter, rhyme, form, and diction. The chapters are filled with examples of Fry’s own verse as well as the verse of great poets from the past and present. And the book also includes 20 exercises in which readers are asked to mark poetic meters, make lists of rhymes, and more than anything else, write poems. Assignments include writing lines of iambic pentameter on uncompleted chores that are niggling at you, dactylic pentameter on cows, and a ballad about a man whose wife sucked out his eyes.
This is, as you can imagine, a book that takes a lot of time. I’ve been reading it and working through the exercises off and on for several months. But the thing that I enjoyed about it is that the time doesn’t ever feel like work. Fry emphasizes over and over that poetry writing should be fun, and the exercises are not meant to require poetic brilliance but to give poets a chance to try out poetic tools and forms. It’s practice and it’s play.
Some might get a bit sniffy about the fact that Fry is encouraging the use of what some would consider outmoded forms in a day when free verse is supposed to be the right way to be poetic, but Fry, in a section titled “Stephen gets all cross” cleverly makes a case for form—and calls Ezra Pound, one of the founders of modernist poetry, many rude names in the process:
But if the old fascist was right in determining that his generation needed to get away from the heavy manner and glutinous clichés of Victorian verse, its archaic words and reflex tricks of poetical language, and all out-dated modes of expression and thought in order to free itself for a new century, is it not equally true that we need to escape from the dreary, self-indulgent, randomly lineated drivel that today passes for poetry for precisely the same reason? After a hundred years of free verse and Open Field poetry the condition of English-language poetics is every bit as tattered and tired as that which Pound and his contemporaries inherited.
As the section goes on, Fry gets crosser—and funnier. There’s nothing like a good rant from an intelligent, witty person whom you happen to agree with. (I’ve made similar arguments regarding the rules of grammar, even as I adore the writing of some authors who break them.) Fry, incidentally, does not dislike all free verse; he just despises the presumption that free verse is superior to a good villanelle or sonnet. “Whichever style you use, use it well” seems to be his motto—with the understanding that learning the forms will give a poet more options.
This book was great fun for me. I doubt I’ll ever become much of a poet myself. I did the assignments, but I lack the patience and discipline to really take the time to craft something good. But then again, I found myself composing couplets in my head during the week after the assignment to write rhyming couplets, so who knows? At this point, though, I couldn’t manage much better than this, an example from Exercise 11, which asks readers to write a poem about each of the stanza forms discussed using the stanza form under discussion. So here you have my quatrain about quatrains:
A quatrain can seem like poetic cliché.
The rhymes are predictable, too.
They go back and forth in the usual way.
Freshness is the challenge for you.
To keep poems fresh and original, we
must play with enjambment as well as with rhyme.
The meter, it just sounds sing-songy to me,
so I stop! I think! I try changing the time.
And the rhymes themselves can be terribly trite,
if I don’t make an effort to vary.
A slant rhyme could help. It could turn the tide,
and make this poor verse just a little more merry.
So as you can see from my sad little example, this book won’t necessarily make you the next Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes. But it can help you have a little fun with language. For Fry, that should be good enough, and I happen to agree with him there.
P.S.: I should mention that this book was a Christmas gift from Jenny a few years ago. Thanks, Jenny! As you can see, I enjoyed it. It took me a while to get through it because I kept starting, putting it aside, coming back to it weeks later, and finding that I had forgotten much of the material from the earlier lessons. Finally, this past summer, I committed to lesson every week or two and found it smooth sailing. I believe the trick was to wait until I was no longer either taking Greek classes or preparing to move.