Archive for the 'Poetry' Category

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.

Beware Monsters!

Charred into position like Pompeian hordes
Or frozen mid-step like a woolly mammoth
Dragged from the Pole by bored English Lords
Who mistook blessed idleness for sinful sloth,
The muse who wants to rot on her laurels
Sits on a throne of waste and mold.
Her words slither prayers of shame and morals,
The eyes that pierced heroes now cold.
She’ll ne’er speak or bring words to the lips
Of men who sang her praises before.
Like sirens who sank all beggarly ships
Your verses wail on her barren shore.

A Pastoral

Dreaming men speak not the monsters, but sing in halting sheathed prose.
Rhymes and songs too tired and worn to hide the truth they must enclose
From the sight of babes in woods who learn this shit just soon enough
To catch the blade a-swinging by, but not in time to call their bluff.

Away Once More You Go

How many times must you lose your faith before you get used to the roll
Of the mind as it goes off and shuts itself down? Of the phoenix of your soul?
Why would you assume enlightenment nears as away once more you go?
Why not be content with the warmth that is born in the humble yet pleasant glow
Of the pulse that beats through the thoughts of the few who’ve seen and understood
What it means to see and see again the true, the beautiful, the good.


I feel at home in Brighton where
The tat-too girls go hand in hand.
Bums shout at pigeons and they stare
At rocks they know that should be sand.

A junkie-hold at every corner,
The rest all looks a bit crusty.
’Most everyone’s a foreigner,
Or else they seem to want to be.

Where we all bleed flowers, petals,
Stab wounds splatter hope for some.
A stolen credit card settles
Your sins and life and death and fun.

It’s safer here than anywhere
I’ve ever known I want to be.
Hemorrhaging, intensive care,
Hung out to dry, soul by the sea.

What Of the Days That Turn

What of the days that turn to years today,
All the reorganized pneumatic strands
Of the tubular brain, high on fat snot,
Made to pump the fact into both the ears
And eyes, and other senses rediscovered
As if they were born to be flooded full
Of a runny noise configured again?

Wisdom stays quiet of it most the time,
I still babble quite a bit, but I won’t
Let the secret slip by just any words.
What of the fallow folds, the passing turns?
The pen runs out, the hand caressing it
Falls to the side of an ink-stained life,
Thus creating some perfect symmetry.

Test Pilot

The brain is shot
And little gels.
The pipes are clogged
And hidden bells
Go off in the distance
Constantly, but
Not unpleasantly.

“To arms!” they say,
But softly so,
To fill the hour,
But yet they go,
Go off in the distance
Invitingly, but
Not persuasively.

It took some time
To calm the mind.
It wandered far
To sing in kind:
Go off in the distance
Absently, but
Not incompletely.