In 2005, Stephen Fry, the author/actor/acceptable-gay-face- of-middle-England published a book, The Ode Less Travelled, where he, as one reviewer put it, “turned his considerable firepower on contemporary poetry” and he did not miss his mark. He focuses on three areas he maintains are sadly neglected by today’s poets: meter, rhyme and form. A poem, as far as Fry is concerned, should conform to certain rules and contain specific things.
I haven’t read the book but having heard him wax loquacious on the subject and after reading reviews in The Observer and The New York Times, I’m pretty sure I know where he’s coming from. And he has a point – but only up to a point.
Let’s just consider form today. It all boils down to definitions. What exactly is a poem?
Spike Milligan’s ‘Oojah-ka-Piv’ is a poem, as is E E Cummings’s, ‘l(a’ as is Philip Larkin’s ‘Poetry of Departures’ – check out the rhymes and half-rhymes.
It’s a fair question. My daughter writes poems – at least she used to do before she found happiness – and vehemently resists any criticism of them holding the view that “it’s a poem because I say it is.”
Another question: Why are Chihuahuas and Great Danes both dogs? Because they wag their tails when they’re happy, they can look both dumb and lovable at the same time and because they head straight for your crotch the moment they meet you. Oh, and they’re all members of the Canidae family of the order Carnivora.
There is evidence to substantiate Stephen Fry’s claims that much of the poetry being written these days is chopped up prose at best or “arse dribble” – his expression – at worse. But this is nothing new: it took me 450-odd attempts to produce anything resembling a half-decent poem but that didn’t stop me trying to get them published. Are you telling me no one ever wrote a crappy sonnet back in the day?
I said I’ve not read Fry’s book but that doesn’t mean I’ve a closed mind. I do own a well-worn copy of Geoffrey Leech’s A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry, a far more scholarly work, and one I have often recommended.
For the record, I don’t write sestinas or sonnets or villanelles or odes. I have (haven’t we all) dabbled with haiku and once I wrote an extremely dark nursery rhyme but that doesn’t mean my poetry lacks form. Consider the syllabic structure of this little mongrel:
Everyone's a Critic
|So we got||3|
|this writer and this reader -||7|
|seems like a match||4|
|made in heaven -||4|
|the catch is,||3|
|the writer keeps writing things||7|
|the reader doesn't want to read||8|
|whilst the reader insists on reading stuff||10|
|the writer hasn't a clue how to write.||10|
|But they're stuck with each other,||7|
|joined at the hip.||4|
|Think about it.||4|
|one day the writer's had it:||7|
|"So what the fuck should I write then?"||8|
|The reader doesn't even miss a beat:||10|
|(well maybe just one) ... "You got a pen?"||9+1 for the beat|
Does it matter if you don’t notice the underlying structure? The form is just there, like a skeleton; necessary, yes, but it knows its place. Always, the words come first and then I look for any structure but it shouldn’t overpower the content. That is simply not the case when it comes to more conventional forms:
|Some time walking, not unseen,||4+3|
|By hedge-rows, elms, on hillocks green,||1+4+3|
|Right against the eastern gate,||4+3|
|Where the great sun begins his state.||1+4+3|
|(from L'Allego, Milton)|| |
Look where the emphases fall and try reading the verse without putting the stress on ‘the’ in the last line. It’s unnatural. But it’s still poetry.
As the Dali Lama put it, “Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.” Take Picasso: he could paint perfectly well in a ‘traditional’ way but he chose to move beyond that, to invent new rules for himself.
A final cliché: take a moment to look back before you decide to head forward. You might learn a trick or two worth making your own.