Stephen Fry’s Rules

Stephen Fry’s acting career often overshadows his literary output. His books are a strange bunch that includes fiction, non-fiction, autobiography, and some other things I don’t have a name for. His latest book is called The Ode Less Travelled (2005) and it’s a book about poetry. Actually, it’s a self-help book, with a cheesy subtitle and everything, that is aimed at people who want to learn to write poetry. It’s jam-packed with rules, forms, and writing exercises. And despite all that it’s great fun to read.

A good portion of the introductory remarks are aimed at explaining why Fry chose to write a book like this. My favorite reason is the simple fact that nobody teaches form. A few university English courses dwell on the subject around these parts, but even then the formal aspects of poetry are seldom given the treatment they deserve. Those of us who have gone through some version of the Finnish university system will recognize an iambic pentameter when we see one, but that’s about it. There is, however, another more interesting reason that pertains to actual writing skills given in the preface:

But however well or badly we were taught English literature, how many of us have ever been shown how to write our own poetry?

Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to rhyme. Don’t bother with metre and verses. Just express yourself. Pour out your feelings.

Suppose you had never played the piano in your life.

Don’t worry, just lift the lid and express yourself. Pour out your feelings.

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:

Anything goes.

What do you do when you are told you can do anything? Anything you do will come out as noise. Sloppy, unrehearsed, uninspired noise. In artistic endeavors it is often the case that the rules of the game enable you to express yourself freely. This fact is often dressed up as a paradox, but it is nothing of the sort.

To take a musical example, say you want to improvise over a chord progression that swings by a certain chord you recognize as F minor. Any note on your guitar will do, meaning any note will have some effect on the overall harmony, but you don’t want to play random notes and risk violence. An F minor arpeggio would do nicely, but you have to know the notes of the chord in order to play it. That’s easy to figure out. Say you do this and now you have a bunch of arpeggio patterns literally at your fingertips. Then you want to do something else and move around a bit. Say you have figured out the arpeggio for the preceding chord and want to make those notes flow nicely into your F minor patterns when the chord changes. But you happen to be stuck in an awkward place on the neck and would have to make a giant leap from one position to the next that would ruin the effect you are looking for. These are the sorts of places where you need more rules to enable more freedom. You open your theory book and discover relative keys. After studying this little rule you discover that in addition to F minor arpeggios you are able to use Ab major arpeggios under F minor as well. The damn things just happen to sound the same and by knowing this relation you’ve just opened up a good portion of the neck for further exploration.

The final trick in study of this kind, after the rules have become second nature, is to forget all about them and just express yourself freely. No shortcuts are available as far as I know. The best you can do is make learning the rules fun and Fry succeeds in doing precisely that.

2 Responses to “Stephen Fry’s Rules”


  1. 1 sonofwalt April 14, 2012 at 09:15

    Oh, how I wish every new poet would read this. And many old ones to, come to think of it. :-/

  2. 2 nonvisedvoce April 14, 2012 at 09:38

    Thanks for the comment!


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