Stephen Fry is a comedian and, he says in The Ode Less Traveled, an amateur poet. His book, subtitled "Unlocking the Poet Within" leans rather heavily on slapstick; it tries to substitute wittiness for originality, word-play for inspiration. Sometimes that works, but after chapter upon chapter expounding classical patterns of meter, rhyme, and form ... well, even the cleverest of asides begins to fall flat.
But there are sparkles among the chaff. Toward the end of Part I Section II ("End-stopping, Enjambment and Caesura; Weak Endings, Trochaic and Pyrrhic Substitutions; Substitutions" are indeed the headers) Fry digresses:
Incidentally, when Rubens was a young man he went round Rome feverishly drawing and sketching antique statues and Old Master paintings, lying on his back, standing on ladders, endlessly varying his viewpoint so as to give himself differing angles and perspectives. He wanted to be able to paint or draw any aspect of the human form from any angle, to master foreshortening and moulding and all the other techniques, spending months on rendering hands alone. All the great poets did the equivalent in their notebooks: busying themselves endlessly with different metres, substitutions, line lengths, poetic forms and techniques. They wanted to master their art as Rubens mastered his. They say that the poet Tennyson knew the quantity of every word in the English language except 'scissors'. A word's quantity is essentially the sum of the duration of its vowels. We shall come to that later. The point is this: poetry is all about concentration, the concentration of mind and the concentration of thought, feeling and language into words within a rhythmic structure. In normal speech and prose our thoughts and feelings are diluted (by stock phrases and round-about approximations); in poetry those thoughts and feelings can be, must be, concentrated.
If only The Ode Less Traveled were so concentrated. At intervals, it is, or tries to be; sixty pages later, for instance, discussing "Sprung Rhythm" and Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The manner was designed to create an outward, poetic form ('instress') that mirrored what he saw as the 'inscape' of the world. He said in a letter to Patmore that stress is 'the making of a thing more, or making it markedly, what it already is; it is the bringing out its nature'. His sense of instress and inscape is not unlike the medieval idea of haecceity or 'thisness' and the later, modernist obsession with quiddity ('whatness'). If such exquisite words are leaving you all of a doo-dah, it is worth remembering that for those of us with a high doctrine of poetry, the art is precisely concerned with precision, exactly about the exact, fundamentally found in the fundamental, concretely concrete, radically rooted in the thisness and whatness of everything. Poets, like painters, look hard for the exact nature of things and feelings, what they really, really are. Just as painters in the late nineteenth and eary twentieth century tried to move their form on, tried to find new ways to represent the 'concrete flux of interpenetrating intensities' that T. E. Hulme saw as reality, so Hopkins attempted to create a prosodic scheme that went beyond the calm, regular certainties of iambs and anapests ('running rhythm' as he called traditional metrics) in order to find a system that mirrored the (for him) overwhelming complexity, density and richness of nature. How they mocked Cézanne and Matisse for their pretension and oddity, yet how truthful to us their representations now seem. The idiosyncrasy of Hopkins is likewise apparent, yet who can argue with such a concrete realisation of the skies? 'Cloud puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows ...' The density and relentless energy of his stresses and word-yokings are his way of relaying to us the density and relentless energy of experience. There is nothing 'primitivist', 'folksy' or 'naïve' in Hopkins's appropriation of indigenous, pre-Renaissance poetics, his verse strikes our ear as powerfully modern, complex and tense. 'No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness,' he wrote to Bridges in 1879. 'It is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer. This vice I cannot have escaped.'
And then Fry comes crashing back to earth, as when he tries to justify the mundane problem-solving that rhymed verse requires:
It may strike you as trivial or even unsettling to discuss rhyming options in such detail. I know exactly how you feel and we should address this: we must be honest about the undoubted embarrassment attendant upon the whole business of rhyming. Whatever we may feel about rhymed poetry it is somehow shaming to talk about our search for rhyming words. It is so banal, so mechanistic, so vulgar to catch oneself chanting 'ace, race, chase, space, face, case, grace, base, brace, dace, lace ...' when surely a proper poet should be thinking high, pure thoughts, nailing objective correlatives, pondering metaphysical insights, observing delicate nuances in nature and the human heart, sifting gold from grit in the swift-running waters of language and soliciting the Muse on the upper slopes of Parnassus. Well, yes. But a rhyme is a rhyme and won't come unless searched for. Wordsworth and Shakespeare, Milton and Yeats, Auden and Chaucer have all been there before us, screwing up their faces as they recite words that only share that sound, that chime, that rhyme. To search for a rhyme is no more demeaning than to search for a harmony at the piano by flattening this note or that and no more vulgar than mixing paints on a palette before applying them to the canvas. It is one of the things we do.
Perhaps. Fry concludes his book with a not-too-un-useful (if jarringly non-parallel) list of tips:
He prefaces them with the even sharper observation, "Concentration and total commitment to language are far and away the most important qualities needed for poetry writing."
Right. And likewise for writing about poetry ...