The Material Nature of Poetry

My sister mailed me a copy of Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, an instructional book on poetry aimed at bringing poetry back to earth.  Through it Fry hopes to encourage plenty of amateurism in poetry, but not the kind of dilettantism of self-expression.  A hefty glossary sits at the back of the book, stuffed with Greek categories and linguistic terms.  I’m looking forward to working through the book.  In high school, I was most proud not of my papers but of those pair of poetry analyses that I wrote together after agonizing re-readings of assigned poems.  When I think about some of my favorite poems, I think of Eliot’s “Prufrock,” and how fun it was to read and reread those opening few lines in a half-hearted attempt at memorization.  And to have Fry writing about it, well, it seems like more fun times are ahead.

One of Fry’s points that resonates most with me is his insistence to read poems aloud and to savor the physicality of them.  Poetry, Fry insists, is a tactile pleasure and attempts to remove that tactile pleasure (one of the most well-intentioned and horrible pieces of advise is the speed reader’s demand to stop reading aloud, even mentally) ultimately remove the poetry from the poem.

But if we’ve lost, as Fry seems to think, our ability to appreciate poetry as a physical pleasure, we’ve put something else in its place.  Too many people view poetry as textual leftovers from a bout of mysticism; it’s a remainder that needs to be interpreted and figured out.  Popularly, the joy of poetry is the joy of the analyst.  Fry does his best to encourage his reader to avoid focusing first on meaning or interpretation.

Fry also points another problem with popular ideas of poetry.  In the face of the information required to get a grasp on the nuances of poetry (see the 20 page glossary), some teachers have opted to encourage students to express themselves or their feelings, and meter be damned.  Poetry as free verse romanticism is even more confusing than the intellectualist approach to poetry.

Modern folks tend to pursue one direction or the other; an intellectual gnosticism or a willfully ignorant retreat from it.  Poetry is a highly complex form of intellectual communication, or it’s an emotive explosion of words onto a page.  I dislike both these ideas so I’m happy to see Fry does as well.

Stephen Fry is great, and here’s a couple of clips.  Oh, and he’s an Auburn fan.  War Eagle, Mr. Fry!

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1 comment
  1. Wayne said:

    Thanks for the heads-up on this book. I’ll have to look it over.

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