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The Ode Less Travelled (thoughts)

July 7, 2008

See!  In real life I shower! lolFirst off, this morning I decided to use my camera’s self-timer and take a new picture for my about page/avatar/etc. And I’m posting it here, because I think that after seeing unshowered, no make-up, sleep-deprived Eva, y’all might want to see what I look like normally! hehe Sorry that the top of my head got cut off; using a self-timer is kinda difficult, and I was worried the neighbours would notice me photographing myself in the backyard and think I was crazy. And I totally won’t mention again how unphotogenic I am, because y’all were so sweet about the scuzzy pictures, I’m no longer expecting mean comments. ;) And now, with that moment of egoism over, let’s turn to the book review!

I grabbed this The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry from the library for a few reasons: poetry scares me, Eloise liked it, and I happen to love Fry’s acting. Have y’all seen Wilde?! And he was Jeeves! And he guest-starred on Bones (my favourite TV show)! Right: I’ll stop with the exclamation points now. Anyway, so Fry’s main hobby happens to be writing poetry. And he wrote this book for others who think that might be a nice hobby, but aren’t sure where to begin. He doesn’t worry at all about analysing poetry; instead, his goal is to give the reader a firm base in metre, rhyme, and form. And he does it all in a very tongue-in-cheek style you’d expect from his acting. He also includes funny footnotes; I know I’m not the only blogger who loves footnotes, so I feel fine sharing that this made me give a little squeal of delight. I have no real interest in writing poetry, but all of the basics I learned have certainly made me feel much better about reading poetry. And I even did quite a few of the poetry writing exercises sprinkled throughout the book, so as to increase my understanding of whatever topic. Fry sets out to make everything very approachable: he always includes pronunciation guides to the weird words he introduces, is constantly telling the reader ‘you can do this,’ and uses simple examples/parallels to make things clearer. I particularly liked his two golden rules to reading poetry (there’s another one for writing it; always have a notebook with you):

[Rule One] In our age one of the glories of poetry is that it remains an art that demonstrates the virtues and pleasures of taking your time. You can never read a poem too slowly, but you can certainly read one too fast. Please, and I am on my knees here, please read all the sample excerpts and fragments of poetry that I include in this slowly as you possibly can, constantly rereading them and feeling their rhythm and balance and shape. …Poems are not read like novels. There is much pleasure to he had in taking the same fourteen-line sonnet to bed with you and reading it many times over for a week. Savour, taste, enjoy. …Always try to read verse out loud…Among the pleasure of poetry is the sheer physical, sensual, textural, tactile pleasure of feeling the words on your lips, tongue, teeth, and vocal cords.

[Rule Two] Never worry about ‘meaning’ when you are reading poems…Poems are not crossword puzzles; however elusive and ‘difficult’ the story or argument of a poem may seem to be and however resistant to simple interpretation, it is not a test of your intelligence and learning…Do not be cross with poetry for failing to deliver meaning and communication in the way that an assemblage of words usually does. Be confident that when encountering a poem you do not have to articulate a response, venture an opinion or make a judgement.

That being said, this book is intense. I read it much more slowly than usual, in part because Fry includes a bunch of poetry and insists on you reading it out loud, preferably multiple times. As long as you read attentively, by the time the book is over, you’ll be able to talk about everything from caesuras to feminine rhyme to villanelles and rondeaux. I took a bunch of notes. And while sometimes, I groaned when confronted with yet more metre or form variations, I’m so glad that I put the effort into this book, because it was completely worth it. I was looking for a book that would help me approach poetry more comfortably, and this one did. This is another one that I borrowed from the library that I now want to buy. In fact, I want to make room for a whole poetry shelf on my bookcases, with copy of this for reference and a whole bunch of poetry books! I’d highly recommend this one to people like me who never learned about poetry’s structure in school, because their teachers were too busy analysing every last metaphor to death.

Favourite Passages (The Ode Less Travelled)
While it is perfectly possible that you did not learn music at school, or drawing and painting, it is almost certain that you did learn poetry. Not how to do it, almost never how to write your own, but how, God help us to appreciate it. We have all of us, all of us, sat with brows furrowed feeling incredibly dense and dumb as the teacher asks us to respond to an image or line of verse.

…reading verse can be like eating chocolate, so much more pleasureable when you allow it to slowly melt inside you, so much less rewarding when you snap off big chunks and bolt them whole, all but untasted.

No, damn you, no! A thousand times no! The organising principle behind the verse is not the sense but the metre.

The point is this: poetry is all about concentration, the concentration of mind and the concentration of thought, feeling and language, into words within a rhythmic structure. In normal speech and prose our thoughts and feelings are diluted(by stock phrases and roundabout approximations); in poetry theose thoughts and feelings can be, must be concentrated.

The metre is shot to hell in every line, but who cares. It is the real thing.

…I would urge you to believe that a familiarity with form will not transform you into a reactionary bourgeois, stifle your poetic voice, imprison your emotions, cramp your style, or inhibit your language-on the contrary, it will liberate you from all of these discomforts.

The villanelle is the reason I am writing this book. Not that lame example, but the existence of the form itself.

The sonnet’s fourteen lines have called to poets for almost a thousand years. It is the Goldilocks form: when others seem too long, too short, too intricate, too shapeless, too heavy, too light, too simple or too demanding the sonnet is always just right. It has the compactness to contain a single thought and feeling, but space enough for narrative, development, and change.

Acrostics have been popular for years; nineteenth-century children produced them instead of watching television-those who were lucky enough not to be sent down chimneys or kidnapped by gangs of pickpockets did, anyway.

I am suggesting that language be worked, as a painter works paint, as a sculptor works marble. If what you are writing has no quality that prose cannot transmit, then why should you call it a poem? We cannot all play the game of ‘it is art because I say it is, it is art because it hangs in a gallery, so there’.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2008 9:44 am

    I liked this book so much that I just bought a copy for my Kindle!

  2. July 7, 2008 11:07 am

    I’ll definitely have to get this soon.

    I’m currently reading Moab is My Washpot, Fry’s autobiography, and it’s all sorts of awesome. I love Stephen Fry so much, I think he’s an exceptional man.

    But more of that when I post my review of the book. =P

  3. July 7, 2008 11:34 am

    Aww you’re the cutest!

  4. July 7, 2008 1:12 pm

    Awwww, I love that picture! And you look eerily familiar.

  5. July 7, 2008 1:14 pm

    Oh that does sound intense — but good!
    And, what a great pic!

  6. adevotedreader permalink
    July 7, 2008 3:10 pm

    I’m a timid reader of poetry myself, although this book sounnds like it might change that. I’ll have to read it and see.

  7. July 7, 2008 3:54 pm

    I love Fry, especially as Jeeves but I’ve enjoyed him in many other roles as well. I would love to hear this one on audio read by him…I think that would be fantastic.

    Lovely picture! Nice to see the change. Your other picture always reminded me of my friend Julie, now when I see your avatar I’ll just see you! :)

  8. July 7, 2008 5:41 pm

    You’re so cute! Surely people tell you that, all the time.

    While I was reading Robert Frost, I had the sense that I really, really needed to find a book about poetry. Now I know what to get. Yay! Thanks, Eva!

  9. July 7, 2008 6:07 pm

    Ah, you’re totally adorable! and that picture makes you look just like Reese Witherspoon (who is my all-time fav actress!) :-)

  10. July 7, 2008 9:06 pm

    Oh my gosh, I was trying to decide who you remind me of – totally Reese Witherspoon. Great picture! The book sounds interesting – poetry scares me, too.

  11. July 7, 2008 9:24 pm

    You clean up nice! Congrats on the 24hr book challenge! :)

  12. July 7, 2008 9:43 pm

    You do look like Reese, except a little bit better. That’s a beautiful scarf.
    The Stephen Fry book sounds wonderful.

  13. July 8, 2008 1:28 am

    I’m so glad you liked The Ode Less Travelled. It is intense but so interesting. He is never patronising and I learnt an awful lot from it, and have been getting so much more from poetry reading since. I had the same problem with poetry at school, why don’t they teach this stuff first? It’s like teaching quadratical equations in maths before the times table.

  14. July 9, 2008 3:32 am

    Debbie, awesome!

    Love, ooohhh-he has an autobiohraphy……oh Love, why did you have to tell me that?! lol

    Nik, aww: thanks!

    Andi, lol: at my college, there was a girl two years ahead of me, who I was mistaken for more than once, which got really annoying. And, when she was studying abroad, her boyfriend kept hitting on me (!). Eeks!

    Iliana, thanks!

    A Devoted Reader, it definitely made me more confident. :D

    Carl, it would be a fantastic audio! And I figured it was time to change up the avatar.

    Nancy, thanks! I hope this one helps out. :)

    Em, thank you. I get the Reese WItherspoon comment fairly often: she’s one of my favourite actresses too! DId you see Rendition?

    Susan, thanks! And see my response to Em.

    Maggie, thanks!

    Bybee, you make me laugh! ;) And I love the scarf: I got it on sale at a downtown boutique for ten dollars. :D

    Eloise, that’s a great analogy! And I’m glad you reviewed it, because otherwise I probably never would have read it.

  15. July 9, 2008 6:25 am

    I was quite shocked by your photo. I’ve been reading your posts not knowing what you looked like. First of all I expected your head to be much bigger, like those aliens from old Sci-Fi movies with super brains. And I expected you to be fat like the people in the new film Wall-E because you spend way too much time reading and not walking. Of course I expected the thick-lense glasses of the traditional bookworm. To reveal just how prejudice I am, if I saw you on the street I would have thought you were the normal pretty girl that never read at all.

    This really messes up my thinking. Now whenever I see a pretty young girl I’m going to wonder if she reads hundreds of books a year and can crank out bookreviews like she’s made a deal with the devil.

  16. July 9, 2008 5:12 pm

    Oooo, this book sounds like exactly what I’m seeking as I begin to explore poetry more and more. Meanwhile, are you sure we aren’t sisters? From this picture, it seems we could easily be related. And I consider myself to be terribly unphotogenic, too (judging from this picture, I wouldn’t say you are). I always hope that what others see is much better than how I look in every photo I’ve ever seen of myself.

  17. July 9, 2008 5:29 pm

    Unphotogenic…no way! Seriously, you should see my mom! Bless her sweet, beautiful heart, but my poor mom is the MOST unphotogenic person alive. It’s seriously a family joke. And she’s pretty, especially for a woman in her mid-60s, so it has nothing to do with that. Anyway, you certainly look photogenic enough to me…you’re definitely as cute as can be!

    And as for the book…must go find this one, for sure! So funny…rule one and rule two sound just like the “lecture” I was giving Annie last week when we started our poetry unit. “Read slowly.” “Read aloud.” “Read them over and over and over.” “Don’t over-analyze, just enjoy.” “Don’t worry…it’s o.k. not to like every poem you read.” These are sort of our mantras.

  18. July 9, 2008 10:03 pm

    Jim, I’ll take that as a compliment. ;) lol

    Emily, maybe we’re long lost family! And what I find weird about photos is I’ll look in the mirror and think “Yay! A pretty day!” and then the camera just makes everything look weird. I’m totally blaming it on the lens. ;)

    Debi, lol: that’s so funny! :) I bet this book would be really great for Annie when she hits high school. She could totally read it now, but it might be more detailed than your lessons plan call for.

  19. October 24, 2008 10:05 pm

    I’m intimidated by poetry too, but it keeps nagging me as something that I shouldn’t be able to live without. Thanks for the review; I’m definitely going to check out this book.


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