Magazine article The Spectator

The Nursery Slopes of Parnassus

Magazine article The Spectator

The Nursery Slopes of Parnassus

Article excerpt

THE ODELESS TRAVELLED by Stephen Fry Hutchinson, £10.95, pp. 357, ISBN 009179661X . £8.79 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Some years ago, answering nature's call after a visit to Wells Cathedral, I was struck by the graffito 'I'd like to [single syllable] you on a slow bus to Swindon.' The phrase had the discontent and imaginative longing of good poetry and its classic 12 syllables made one want to scan it. If only Stephen Fry's introduction to English prosody had been available. I believed, but could not then prove, that a spondee was lurking in that lavatory.

Fry's subtitle is 'Unlocking the Poet Within'. Poet derives from the Greek word for maker. A poet relates, therefore, in some way to all of the arts. In language, poetry makes ideas and emotions concrete by unlocking the life and memory stored in words themselves; in their look, sound, weight and density. Rhythm in language uncovers the social relations between words. Fry believes, and he is quite right, that when poetry is stripped of its educative camouflage, a lowbrow accessible art is revealed for all to use. Everyone responds; think of advertising or rap music. Everyone has ideas and emotions which they would love to snatch out of time. Verse is a technique for achieving this, and, since it is a technique, it can be taught. Between the ages of nine and 19 the vast majority of our kind can learn to read music, draw in perspective, write a ballad or a limerick or a sonnet, build emotional capital for a lifetime to come.

Few do so.

The Ode Less Travelled covers metre, rhyme, form (the models and types of verse writing) and, least satisfactory section, one called 'Diction and Poetics Today'. This caution does not matter, since Fry is coach not critic. Aspirant artists of all kinds need coaches rather than critics:

'That's your shot. Perfect it.' Critics are for audiences, and too often each other, not makers. It is best to start with form and work back to rhyme and metre. 'Form' is a wonderful chapter, full of telling insights like 'Clive James is one of the few poets I know to have made something new and comic out of the Spenserian Stanza' or:

His [Shakespeare's] great sonnets stand with Beethoven's piano sonatas as supreme expressions of the human voice musing and fighting the benign tyranny of form, employing form itself as a metaphor for fate and the external world. Sonata and sonnet share the same etymology, as it happens -- 'little sound'. Little sounds that make a great noise. …

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