Unlocking the Poet Within. By Stephen Fry.
The difficulty of teaching poetry to a lay audience can be summarized by a single, diabolical name: Robin Williams. Williams, as you may recall, played the free-thinking English teacher John Keating in the 1989 movie “Dead Poets Society,” a film that established once and for all the connection between learning about poems and killing yourself while wearing a silly hat.
In the movie’s first depiction of poetical pedagogy, Williams as Keating instructs his students to open their textbook – a dry, dully diagrammatic primer by “Dr. J. Evans-Pritchard” – and then, with the insouciant panache of Lord Byron (or possibly Patch Adams) tells them to rip out the introduction! Yes! Riiiip! “Armies of academics going forward, measuring poetry,” cries the righteous Keating, “No, we will not have that here!” Instead, the class is told to embrace a philosophy of carpe diem, and sic transit J. Evans-Pritchard. Significantly, however, while Keating subsequently teaches his students how to stand on their desks, how to kick a soccer ball with gusto and how to free-associate lamely about Walt Whitman, he’s never shown actually teaching them anything about the basics of form – basics they’d need in order to appreciate half the writers he’s recommending.
This is, unfortunately, to be expected. As Samuel Johnson put it more than 250 years ago, anyone attempting to discuss “the minuter parts of literature” usually ends up either “frighting us with rugged science, or amusing us with empty sound.” That is, in trying to avoid being a technique-obsessed pedant (like Evans-Pritchard), the teacher of poetry can easily become a slogan-spouting windbag (like Keating). Or vice versa. Seen in this light, the text-ripping scene from “Dead Poets Society” doesn’t show us a helpful new way of relating to poetry so much as the two standard, unhelpful approaches colliding. Of course, this dilemma isn’t unique to poetry. Any discipline with a complicated set of rules – baseball, for instance – is vulnerable to being reduced to limp statistics or inflated into a George F. Will column. But poetry has a problem that baseball doesn’t: it exists both as an art and as a metaphor for certain kinds of experience.
It’s both poetry and Poetry.
When people use the word “poetry” as a metaphor – when it’s Poetry – they’re usually thinking about one of two related concepts. First, they’re talking about a kind of exemplary expression of a particular craft, a sort of “art of the art.” So, for example, different audiences might describe a performance by Cecilia Bartoli or Tiger Woods or Ferran Adrià or Zakk Wylde as “pure poetry.” Second, people tend to associate poets with outrageousness, rebellion and the “deliberate disorientation of the senses,” as Rimbaud put it. This helps to explain why so many rock stars (as opposed to country singers) get called “poets”; it also helps explain why Keating asserted that his youthful encounters with Shelley’s verse were bacchanalia in which “spirits soared, women swooned and gods were created!” Regardless, because so many readers become used to thinking about the word “poetry” in one of these metaphoric senses, they often come to an actual poem expecting either to be awed by excellence or overwhelmed by the Raw Passion of It All.
They’re usually disappointed. Neither of these possibilities has much to do with the way most readers respond to real, un-metaphorical poetry – which is, after all, an art form and not a trope. While it’s true that some aspects of poetry transcend the nuts and bolts of technique, it’s equally true that many more do not. Consequently, only rarely do lay readers experience poems as a cross between an orgasm and a heart attack; usually, the response is closer to “What?” or “Eh” or at best “Hm.” This doesn’t mean that other reactions aren’t possible; but such reactions generally come from learning what exactly is going on. And you don’t learn what’s going on by kicking a soccer ball and shouting a quote from Shelley. You learn what’s going on by reading carefully, questioning your own assumptions and sticking with things even when you’re confused or nervous. Then you can kick the soccer ball.
This is where it’s useful to turn from Robin Williams to another actor, Stephen Fry. Fry, who’s known in Britain as a novelist, comedian, commentator and all-around interesting dude (and in America as the guy who sometimes collaborates with the guy from “House”), has written a book with the cheerfully awful title “The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within” that purports to teach us “how to have fun with the modes and forms of poetry as they have developed over the years.” Or to put it another way, this is J. Evans-Pritchard as rewritten by the man who played the sublimely obtuse General Melchett in the “Blackadder” series; which is to say, this is something very odd indeed.
It’s also oddly effective. “The Ode Less Travelled” is at once idiosyncratic and thoroughly traditional – it’s filled with quips, quirks and various Fry-isms (sestinas are “a bitch to explain but a joy to make”), yet still manages to be a smart, comprehensive guide to prosody. It’s organized in three main sections – meter, rhyme and form, with exercises suggested for each – and a smaller concluding section in which Fry gives some general thoughts about contemporary British poetry. It also has a practical, good-natured glossary (a choliamb is a “kind of metrical substitution, usually with ternary feet replacing binary. Forget about it.”) The key to the book’s success is its tone, which is joking, occasionally fussy, sometimes distractingly cute, but always approachable. If Fry thinks the meter of a Keats couplet doesn’t work, he’ll tell you so, and he’s more than happy to admit his own effort at a ghazal is “rather a bastardly abortion.” As is to be expected in any book taking on such a complicated subject, there are a few minor errors. For instance, in a discussion of hendecasyllabic (11-syllable) lines, Fry includes Frost’s “And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver.” (Unlike Fry, Frost is American, and would have pronounced “flower” with two syllables.) But such mistakes are negligible. On the whole, the book is ideal for anyone who’s interested in learning more about poetic forms but doesn’t have an obsessive assistant professor living next door.
So why does “The Ode Less Travelled” work when many books with more responsible titles have failed? To begin, Fry avoids the poetry-as-metaphor trap. He does so by acknowledging upfront what anyone who’s ever taught poetry to a nonspecialist audience will recognize as The Fear. This is, in Fry’s words, the general reader’s sense that “poetry lies in inaccessible marshland: no pathways, no signposts, just the skeletons of long-dead poets poking through the bog and the unedifying sight of living ones floundering about in apparent confusion and mutual enmity. Behind it all, the dread memory of classrooms swollen into resentful silence while the English teacher invites us to ‘respond’ to a poem.”
Rather than pull a Keating, and attempt to turn poetry into a Doors concert circa 1969, Fry’s goal is to demystify the art without deadening it; to make it seem as open to the interested amateur as “carpentry and bridge and wine and knitting and brass-rubbing and line-dancing and the hundreds of other activities that enrich and enliven the daily toil of getting and spending.” This attitude may annoy certain segments of the American poetry world, to which one can only say: Good.
The book also works because it gives us a strong perspective without sounding pinched or dogmatic. Fry is a stickler for form; he believes you don’t really understand poetry unless you understand at least some of the history of English verse technique. But if he’s in favor of form, he’s also “far from contemptuous of Modernism and free verse, the experimental and the avant-garde or of the poetry of the streets.” It’s also to Fry’s credit that alongside the sonnet and quatrain, you’ll find the Japanese senryu, the Filipino tanaga and the Vietnamese luc bat. In the end, what comes through most vividly in “The Ode Less Travelled,” and what makes it work so well for the amateur, is Fry’s belief that poetry, like cooking, “begins with love, an absolute love of eating and of the grain and particularity of food.” Here, he’s unconsciously echoing John Dewey, who argued that “craftsmanship … must be loving” and that the form of art “unites the very same relation of doing and undoing, outgoing and incoming energy, that makes an experience to be an experience.” Poetry, then, isn’t a symbol for a type of behavior, it’s an experience on its own – and the reader who is properly taught (by Stephen Fry, maybe) won’t need to stand on his desk to know it.