The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within


Stephen Fry’S The Ode Less Travelled provides us with a witty and entertaining guide to the mysteries of writing poetry.

Stephen Fry has always had a secret passion for poetry and he reveals this in this book about how to write poetry. This book will give everybody the tools to write poetry; covering the full spectrum of the different poetic forms, structures and techniques. ...

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The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within

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Stephen Fry’S The Ode Less Travelled provides us with a witty and entertaining guide to the mysteries of writing poetry.

Stephen Fry has always had a secret passion for poetry and he reveals this in this book about how to write poetry. This book will give everybody the tools to write poetry; covering the full spectrum of the different poetic forms, structures and techniques. According to Stephen it will make writing poetry fun, easy, satisfying, fulfilling and delightful.

Here is a taste of Stephen’s own efforts;

Lesbian Sappho made this form
With two beats to the final line
Her sex life wasn’t quite the norm
And nor is mine

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Editorial Reviews

Claudia La Rocco
The Ode Less Travelled— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In this delightfully erudite, charming and soundly pedagogical guide to poetic form, British actor (narrator of the Harry Potter movies, among other roles), novelist and secret poet Fry leads the reader through a series of lessons on meter, rhythm, rhyme and stanza length and reveals the structural logic of every imaginable poetic form, including the haiku, the ballad, the ode and the sonnet. Writing poetry, like any hobby, should be fun, Fry claims, and while talent is inborn, technique can be learned. Inviting readers to study the wealth of choices of form available in the world's major poetic traditions, Fry himself pens intentionally vapid yet entertaining poems that demonstrate each form's rules and patterning, and ends each lesson with wittily devised exercises for readers. Fry rails against the dumbing down of verse in a section subtitled "Stephen gets all cross": "It is as if we have been encouraged to believe that form is a kind of fascism and that to acquire knowledge is to drive a jackboot into the face of those poor souls who are too incurious, dull-witted or idle to find out what poetry can be." Fry has created an invaluable and highly enjoyable reference book on poetic form, which deserves to achieve widespread academic adoption, despite or even because of its saucy and Anglocentric tone. (Aug. 17) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Fry’s extraordinary book is an idiot’s guide to the writing of poetry, a primer, a tutorial with funny turns, an earnest textbook…”
Independent on Sunday

“A smart, sane and entertaining return to basics.”
Daily Telegraph

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781592402489
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/17/2006
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.84 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Fry

As well as being the bestselling author of four novels, The Stars’ Tennis Balls, Making History, The Hippopotamus, and The Liar, and the first volume of his autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, Fry has played Peter in Peter’s Friends, Wilde in the film Wilde, Jeeves in the television series Jeeves & Wooster and Laurie in the television series Fry & Laurie.

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Read an Excerpt

How to Read this Book

There is no getting away from it: in about five minutes' time, if you keep reading at a steady rate, you will start to find yourself, slowly at first and then with gathering speed and violence, under bombardment from technical words, many of them Greek in origin and many of them perhaps unfamiliar to you. I cannot predict how you will react to this.You might rub your hands in glee, you might throw them up in whatever is the opposite of glee, you might bunch them into an angry fist or use them to hurl the book as far away from you as possible.

It is important for you to realise now, at this initial stage, that — as I mentioned earlier — most activities worth pursuing come with their own jargon, their private language and technical vocabulary. In music you would be learning about fifths and relative majors, in yachting it would be boom-spankers, tacking into the wind and spinnakers. I could attempt to 'translate' words like iamb and caesura into everyday English, but frankly that would be patronising and silly. It would also be very confusing when, as may well happen, you turn to other books on poetry for further elucidation.

So please, DO NOT BE AFRAID. I have taken every effort to try to make your initiation into the world of prosody as straightforward, logical and enjoyable as possible. No art worth the striving after is without its complexities, but if you find yourself confused, if words and concepts start to swim meaninglessly in front of you, do not panic. So long as you obey the three golden rules below, nothing can go wrong.You will grow in poetic power and confidence at a splendid rate.You are not expected to remember every metrical device or every rhyme scheme: I have included a glossary at the back. Just about every unusual and technical word I use is there, so if in doubt flip to the back where you should find an explanation given by definition and/or example.

If you already know, or believe you know, a fair amount about prosody (usually pronounced prósser-di, but sometimes prose-a-di), that is to say the art of versification, then you may feel an urge to hurry through the early sections of the book. That is up to you, naturally, but I would urge against it.The course is designed for all comers and it is better followed in the order laid out. Now, I am afraid you are not allowed to read any further without attending to the three golden rules below.

The Golden Rules


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 book (usually in indented paragraphs) as slowly as you possibly can, constantly rereading them and feeling their rhythm and balance and shape. I'm referring to single lines here as much as to larger selections.

Poems are not read like novels. There is much pleasure to be had in taking the same fourteen-line sonnet to bed with you and reading it many times over for a week. Savour, taste, enjoy. Poetry is not made to be sucked up like a child's milkshake, it is much better sipped like a precious malt whisky.Verse is one of our last stands against the instant and the infantile. Even when it is simple and childlike it is be savoured.

Always try to read verse out loud: if you are in a place where such a practice would embarrass you, read out loud inside yourself (if possible,moving your lips).Among the pleasures of poetry is the sheer physical, sensual, textural, tactile pleasure of feeling the words on your lips, tongue, teeth and vocal cords.

It can take weeks to assemble and polish a single line of poetry. Sometimes, it is true, a lightning sketch may produce a wonderful effect too, but as a general rule, poems take time.As with a good painting, they are not there to be greedily taken in at once, they are to be lived with and endlessly revisited: the eye can go back and back and back, investigating new corners, new incidents and the new shapes that seem to emerge.We are perhaps too used to the kind of writing that contains a single message.We absorb the message and move on to the next sentence. Poetry is an entirely different way of using words and I cannot emphasise enough how much more pleasure is to be derived from a slow, luxurious engagement with its language and rhythms.


NEVER WORRY about 'meaning' when you are reading poems, either those I include in the book, or those you choose to read for yourself. 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 (or if it is, it is not worth persevering with). Of course some poems are complex and highly wrought and others may contain references that mystify you. Much poetry in the past assumed a familiarity with classical literature, the Christian liturgy and Greek mythology, for example. Some modernist poetry can seem bloody-minded in its dense and forbidding allusion to other poets, to science and to philosophy. It can contain foreign phrases and hieroglyphs.There are literary and critical guides if you wish to acquaint yourself with such works; for the most part we will not concern ourselves with the avant-garde, the experimental and the arcane; their very real pleasures would be for another book.

It is easy to be shy when confronting a poem. Poems can be the frightening older children at a party who make us want to cling to our mothers. But remember that poets are people and they have taken the courageous step of sharing their fears, loves, hopes and narratives with us in a rare and crafted form. They have chosen a mode of expression that is concentrated and often intense, they are offering us a music that has taken them a long time to create — many hours in the making, a lifetime in the preparation.They don't mean to frighten or put us off, they long for us to read their works and to enjoy them.

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. Just as the reading of each poem takes time, so a relationship with the whole art of poetry itself takes time. Observation of Rule One will allow meaning to emerge at its own pace.


Buy a notebook, exercise book or jotter pad and lots of pencils (any writing instrument will do but I find pencils more physically pleasing). This is the only equipment you will need: no cameras, paintbrushes, tuning forks or chopping boards. Poets enjoy their handwriting ('like smelling your own farts,'W. H. Auden claimed) and while computers may have their place, for the time being write, don't type.

You may as well invest in a good pocket-sized notebook: the Moleskin range is becoming very fashionable again and bookshops and stationers have started to produce their own equivalents.Take yours with you everywhere.When you are waiting for someone, stuck in an airport, travelling by train, just doodle with words. As you learn new techniques and methods for producing lines of verse, practise them all the time.

Imagine the above-mentioned are the End User Licence Agreement to a piece of computer software.You cannot get any further without clicking 'OK' when the installation wizard asks you if you agree to the terms and conditions.Well, the three rules are my terms and conditions, let me restate them in brief:

1. Take your time

2. Don't be afraid

3. Always have a notebook with you

I agree to abide by the terms and conditions of this book

0 Agree 0 Disagree

Now you may begin.

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Table of Contents

How to read this book. Three golden rules
1 Metre
I How we speak : meet metre : the great lamb : the lambic pentameter 1
II End-stopping, enjambment and caesura 21
III More metres : four beats to the line : mixed feet 55
IV Ternary feet : the dactyl, the molossus and tribrach, the amphibrach, the amphimacer, quaternary feet 77
V Anglo-Saxon attitudes 97
VI Syllabic verse 113
Table of metric feet 120
2 Rhyme
I The basic categories of rhyme : partial rhymes, feminine and triple rhymes; rich rhyme 123
II Rhyming arrangements 143
III Good and bad rhyme? : a thought experiment : rhyming practice and rhyming dictionaries 147
Rhyme categories 168
3 Form
I The stanza : what is form and why bother with it? 171
II Stanzaic variations : open forms : Terza Rima, the quatrain, the rubai, rhyme royal, Ottava rima, Spenserian stanza : adopting and adapting 179
III The ballad 191
IV Heroic verse 202
V The ode : sapphic, pindaric, horatian, the lyric ode, anacreontics 209
VI Closed forms : the villanelle 221
VII More closed forms : Rondeau, Rondeau Redouble, Rondel, Roundel, Rondelet, Roundelay, Triolet, Kyrielle 247
VIII Comic verse : cento, the clerihew : the limerick : reflections on comic and impolite verse : light verse : parody 261
IX Exotic forms : Haiku, Senryu, Tanka. Ghazal : Luc bat : Tanaga 274
X The sonnet : Petrarchan and Shakespearean : curtal and caudate sonnets : sonnet variations and romantic duels 281
XI Shaped verse : pattern poems : silly, silly forms : acrostics 293
4 Diction and poetics today
I The whale : the cat and the act : madeline : diction : being alert to language 307
II Poetic vices : ten habits of successful poets that they don't teach you at Harvard Poetry School, or chicken verse for the soul is from Mars but you are what you read in just seven days or your money back : getting noticed : poetry today : goodbye 320
App Arnaud's algorithm
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  • Posted March 30, 2009

    Takes a potentially dry subject and infuses it with wonder and fun!

    I remember iambic pentameter, the term if not its meaning. It's included in the "List of Terminology" taught in high-school English classes most of us remember, at least those of us whose teachers were certain at the start that we would find the subject boring and so defaulted to that for the entire class. Stephen Fry knows this, and so his default setting is "the structure of poetry is beautiful, complicated, and fascinating." Recommended for anyone who wants to know more about writing and reading poetry, who finds words to be beautiful.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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