A fun new book from British actor, writer and humorist Stephen Fry is an introduction to poetry, a handbook of metrics and a treatise on poetry. Entitled The Ode Less Travelled, I think it fills all of the above roles quite well, and were I currently teaching a course on poetry, I would use it as the required text, or one of them. Fry writes in his own personal voice, erudite and witty, full of opinions and judgment, and that adds something which is missing from objective, scholarly textbooks.
I appreciate that Fry doesn’t shy away from technical language and questions of prosody. He points out that no beginning student of the piano is ever told “Don’t worry, just lift the lid and express yourself. Pour out your feelings.” Says Fry, “We have all heard children do just that and we have all wanted to treat them with great violence as a result. Yet this is the only instruction we are ever likely to get in the art of writing poetry.” Later on, Fry adds, “It is useful and pleasurable to have a special vocabulary for a special activity. Convention, tradition and precision suggest this in most fields of human endeavour, from music and painting to snooker and snowboarding. It does not make those activities any less rich, individual and varied.”
One passage which caught my attention was this: “…it encourages readers to believe that they and the poet share the same discourse, intelligence and standing, inhabit the same universe of feeling and cultural reference; it does not howl in misunderstood loneliness, wallow in romantic agony or bombard the reader with learning and allusion from a Parnassian or abstrusely academic height.” The “it” in question? Light verse. Funny, I would have said this was a description of “good verse”. Not that I’m disagreeing with Fry—his definition according to popular usage is likely accurate. His characterization of “light verse” as potentially “moving, angry, erotic and even religious” yet still “not embarrassed by the idea of likeability and accessibility” is not false, but I find the implications tragic. Fry suggests that Modernism did much to extinguish this quality from poetry, an opinion I share. This also brings to mind an anecdote from a friend of mine remembered from his university English class: upon suggesting that a particular poem was good in part because it was easy to understand, he was subjected, he claims, to audible snorts from his fellows.
Fry’s use of the phrases “howl in misunderstood loneliness” and “wallow in romantic agony” brings to mind an essay by Garrison Keillor from the Atlantic Monthly.
In it, Keillor agrees to judge a poetry contest: “Though I had no time at all, none, I said yes because I was angry about some awful stuff I'd read recently—dreadful sensitive garbage, and because dreadful people have plenty of time to serve as judges, this garbage had won awards. It was a book of essays by a Minnesota guy who specializes in taking walks in the woods and looking at the reflections of sunlight on small bodies of water and feeling grievous and wounded in a vague way—a thoughtful guy in a harsh unfeeling world with too much molded plastic furniture, and he mopes for a few pages and then resolves to soldier on as a sensitive writer. This guy's stuff reads like a very long letter from someone you wish would write to someone else, it is mournful and piteous as if he is about to ask if he can come and live in your home for a few months, but it won awards because it is pretentiously sad and is "about" something, maleness or the millennium, and that means his books will find their way into schools, his glum reflections will be disseminated among innocent schoolchildren, and they will learn that a great writer is one who can lead the reader away from the dangerous edge of strong feeling and into the barns of boredom. So the brighter ones—even though they love to write stories! —will decide not to be writers, and you'll have another writerless generation like the thirty-something adolescents of today, and our beloved country will pull the shades and sink ever deeper into the great couch of despond. That is why I agreed to judge the poetry contest: to save America.”
One of the poems that reaches Keillor is entitled “going to my brother's wedding reception at the minikahda club after seeing a documentary about rwanda". Keillor says, “I could easily—yes, easily—imagine some judges who would snatch this poem out of the pile, and give it the blue ribbon or the Naomi Windham Nissensen Award for Sensitivity of Greater Than Medium Length. I know people who might read the self-aggrandizing agony of the young man in the white tuxedo and think he was quite insightful: Teachers of creative writing who seduce their students into writing journals—yards and yards of sensitive wallpaper! Administrators of literary programs who keep humor alarms on their desks! Artistic politicos and commissars who insist that Literature must express the anger of oppressed people, thus forcing oppressed people to watch TV for their entertainment. Proponents of the Pain Theory of Literature and devotees of pitiful writing…”
I wonder if the attitudes expressed here have something to do with the fact that Stephen Fry and Garrison Keillor primarily entertainers, at least professionally, and assume (shock, horror) that good poetry would have some of the same qualities as a good novel, film or song: technical skill in its execution and audience appeal.
And as long as I'm at it, here's a clip from Stephen Fry's sketch show, ages and ages ago, with Hugh Laurie.