Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds There’s some aspects of poetry that can seem quite intimidating. It’s a lot of technical vocabulary that goes with it. And I think if we’re going to really seriously explore the value of poetry at times of stress, then we need to learn a little bit about how poetry works. And indeed, one of the things we’ll find is that very word stress, and its opposite, unstressed, plays an important part in how poetry is put together. In order to help me explore some of these ideas, I’ve got with me the author of what in the old days would have been called a Manual of English Prosody. Prosody is the technical term for how poems are put together, the technical aspects of it.
Skip to 0 minutes and 54 seconds But it’s not actually called a manual of English prosody.
Skip to 0 minutes and 56 seconds It’s called the Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. And it’s by a poetry fanatic. Someone who’s been privately writing poetry pretty well all his life, Stephen Fry. Hi, Jonathan. Stephen, hi. Welcome. I loved this book. I absolutely loved it. I remember reading old George Saintsbury’s Manual of English Prosody written 100 years ago. And it was not quite as accessible as your approach. It’s an interesting thing. Sometimes people imagine that poetry is just about putting down all your feelings. And that’s all that you need to do, and then that’s valid, and it’s good. Occasionally, that can work. And that’s called free verse. As you know, it has no particular form or structure that’s laid down.
Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds And I can’t argue with that. I love a lot of free verse, Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, some of their verse is free and as good as anything ever written. But a lot of verse that’s written uses - you mentioned the word stress - uses the nature of the English language, which comes in beats whether you know it or not. I haven’t time to take your call right now. So leave a message when you hear the tone. That happens to be two lines of iambic pentameter. Most people are familiar with that and may not necessarily know what it is. It’s what Shakespeare has written in… Exactly, it seems to catch the rhythm of English speech.
Skip to 2 minutes and 22 seconds One of my favourite examples, very famous 18th century poem, Thomas Grey’s ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ and it begins, ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day’, dee dum, dee dum, dee dum. You have a lovely phrase in your book. You say, ‘The life of a poem is measured in regular heart beats. The name for those heartbeats is metre’. That’s right. That’s metrical verse. Metre, it’s just the Greek for measure. And it’s how you count it out. In America, the word measure is used for what we call a bar in music in English. And if you think of music, it’s a good comparison.
Skip to 3 minutes and 1 second Nobody would imagine that the way to express yourself musically is to go to a piano or guitar and just do this without knowing what you’re doing. You have, basically, a sense of rhythm. Is it in 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, which would be a waltz? Or is it 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4? Is it 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2? We all know that sort of - the most likely way to play music. And then we have to know a few technical words like a chord or something. And really, it’s no different in poetry.
Skip to 3 minutes and 37 seconds The only thing that’s different is we use language all the time. We use it to order up pizza on the phone or to ask someone to pass the mustard. It seems strange to be told how to regiment it in order to express it at its finest and most complex, which is a poem. And yet, I think it’s actually liberating, and a lot of poets thought this. Wordsworth is a good example. He wrote a poem on the nature of the sonnet, ‘this scanty plot of ground’. And then if you imagine you had to plant a row of flowers, and you were given a small area, then you’d think very hard about how to do it. The result would be rather wonderful.
Skip to 4 minutes and 15 seconds If you’re given a huge field, what on Earth do you do then? A great, open field. And oddly enough, open field is a word for an American style of free verse. Charles Olson and others wrote this open field poetry. Which was a reaction against regular metre. It was. And all that is, of course, completely valid. And it’s important to remember that there are ultimately no rules about poetry except what either pleases you as a reader, what you connect with, what makes sense to you, or what, as someone who’s trying to write poetry, makes it easier for you to express what it is you want to express, because the words are the only things you have to make a poem.
Skip to 4 minutes and 55 seconds And people have played around with all kinds of things to do with words, how they look on the page. Concrete poetry, as it is sometimes called, which make shapes and which reflect the feelings of the poem or the meaning of the poem perhaps. I think a very good example is the Thomas Hardy poem which has a rather typically Hardy pompous title because it’s about the Titanic. And it’s called ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ about the meeting of this great ocean liner and the iceberg and how they were destined and doomed to meet, which is very Hardyesque sort of thing, isn’t it? This doom, this inevitability. But each stanza, each verse, actually looks like a ship.
Skip to 5 minutes and 36 seconds It’s got a long line at the top and then shorter ones down to the bottom. And it’s very, very pleasing how you can do that without overdoing it. Yeah, it’s an amazing thing about form, isn’t it? Certainly, if we think about the Western tradition, our ideas of poetry and literature go back to the ancient Greeks. And the fact is for 2,500 years until the advent of free verse, people thought it valuable to put their best thoughts into poetic form with very rigorous metres and rules. I mean, as you say, a lot of formal terms go back to the ancient Greeks.
Skip to 6 minutes and 14 seconds They are then imitated by the Romans and then through the Renaissance in Shakespeare’s time right down until the so-called modernist revolution, everybody always used form, used metre. And there is something about the line as the unit of verse that’s particularly important, isn’t there? Yeah, the line is absolutely right. And as a lot of people might have thought when confronting modern poetry, that it seems to be randomly chopped lines because they’re no longer following the rule of 10 syllables, for example, which would be a pentameter. And, instead, they seem to go this. And then it will be the line that then stops. And in a good poem, it’s very provocative and interesting how it’s done.
Skip to 7 minutes and 3 seconds But in the formal poetry, the line is, in a sense, how the sense is expressed and the way it flows or doesn’t flow, stops or it doesn’t stop. But a lot of people would say, of course, that the rules were there because that’s how you learned a poem. Indeed. The rhythm taught you how to learn it. If it weren’t rhythmic, and it didn’t rhyme, it would be a lot harder to learn, wouldn’t it? Now, that brings us to one of your rules in your book, which is how valuable it is A) to read poetry slowly, and B) to read it aloud. And of course, if you’re ever struggling with the rhythm or the metre, read it aloud.
Skip to 7 minutes and 42 seconds And you discover from the natural stresses of the words. You discover the rhythm. So why slowly and why aloud? Well, poets put poems together very slowly. There are few famous exceptions to that. Keats wrote a sonnet, ‘The Grasshopper and the Cricket’, apparently, in about 20 minutes. But generally speaking, they’re very, very slowly put together. And the words are all kind of balanced and shaped like a beautiful object. And they need to be looked at, inspected, felt in the mouth, in the eyes, and of course, with the intellect, but mostly with the emotion. There are all kinds of different ways of engaging with them. I’d recommend taking a poem. It can be most famous poem in the world.
Skip to 8 minutes and 33 seconds It can be, ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’ Take it to bed and read it every night for a couple of weeks. And it won’t have given up all its goodness. There is so much, as it were, nutrition, emotional and intellectual, inside the best poems.
Skip to 8 minutes and 50 seconds I always think it’s silly to be embarrassed about reading a poem like ‘Country Churchyard’ by Thomas Grey that you mentioned, the elegy, or Shakespeare’s ‘18th Sonnet’, for example. Nothing to be embarrassed about, taking one that’s incredibly well-known, it could be ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. It could be a Keats ‘Ode’. And just see why it stood the test of time, much as you might want to go and look at the Mona Lisa when you are in Paris. It’s silly not too. It might be annoying having all the tourists there. But it hasn’t taken away its value.
Skip to 9 minutes and 23 seconds And because there is well known ones, and because you probably know most of the words of them already, at least the beginnings of them, it becomes yours. It becomes your friend. You know it. You know every line of it. And you question why has he done that? That’s very odd. And I think that you can’t be too slow with a poem. And that’s one of the values they have for you. Obviously, one of the ways in which poetry achieves form and a sense of harmony and completion. One of the ways in which a poetic couplet can be like a kiss, two lines joining, is through rhyme. Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. But many of the greatest poems do.
Skip to 10 minutes and 7 seconds What are your views on rhyme?
Skip to 10 minutes and 12 seconds I think you have to have a good ear. And sometimes, even the great poets didn’t have a good ear. There is the famous ‘Lucy Poems’ of Wordsworth about her grave. ‘I measured it from side-to-side. It was 6 foot 5 and 4 foot wide’, or whatever, you know, just so terrible. You can’t write that in a serious poem. I don’t know why. You just can’t. I think most people would giggle if they heard that.
Skip to 10 minutes and 35 seconds And I think obviously, avoiding cliche rhymes. There are so many that draw attention to themselves as moon and June and whatever, love and… they’re only a few words that rhyme with love. And they’re pretty much used up dove and above and of, in lyrics. I think a lot of poets… a good example is the great Philip Larkin and also Wilfred Owen, use what is called partial slant rhyme where it can just be the consonants that rhyme. So port would rhyme with pint or heart with hunt.
Skip to 11 minutes and 18 seconds Or you can have rhymes where the vowels in the middle rhyme. So you could have heart and far or something like that, just a gentle rhyme, just a gentle suggestion of connection between the lines that somehow stops it being - I suppose in our culture now, because we’re so used to every rhyme that’s possible - it stops being a bit pat, a bit sort of ha, ha. Yeah, so the thought is it’s held together in unity. There is a kind of harmony. But as you say, it’s not an over-easy resolution. That’s right, exactly.
Skip to 11 minutes and 57 seconds And I suppose we live in a time ever since the age of anxiety, ever since the First World War and modernism where easy conclusions are just not part of our culture anymore. The other thing about the line, you said this a moment ago, is that one of the things all great poets do is a mix between lines that are stop at the end, so put end stopped lines where the unit of the sense falls in with the unit of the line. And lines that run on across the line ending, we use this technical term enjambment for that, a French word. Yes.
Skip to 12 minutes and 30 seconds You know, Macbeth, ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’, it’s a single line, ‘Creeps in this petty pace from a day to day to the last syllable of recorded time’. And you start running across the line endings.
Skip to 12 minutes and 46 seconds Do you think that balance between the stopped line and run-on line is… what’s going on with that? Why does that seem such an effective device? It’s a really good point. And actually, in this book, not that I’m asking anyone to read it or go to a library and refer to it, but it’s just an example that struck me very strongly. There’s a speech, Leontes in ‘A Winter’s Tale’, which is astonishing. It has the famous line about Sir Smile, the neighbour and sluicing the pond. It’s a hideous thing of this jealous man suddenly believing that his wife is having an affair with his friend. And there’s a section which happens to be about 14 lines, like a sonnet.
Skip to 13 minutes and 30 seconds And every single line is enjambment, is a flowing through. And in the middle it has a hard pause, a caesura, as they call it, you know? And so it goes (RHYTHMIC SOUNDS) It’s all correct, if you want to use that word, in terms of its metre. But it’s severely fractured. And the point is that Pericles at this point is going mad. Leontes? Sorry, Leontes, sorry, Leontes at this point is going mad. He is severely disturbed. He’s having a kind of psychotic episode, essentially. And the lines of the poetry are doing that. They’re showing that as clearly as could possibly be. And if you compare it to the one I’ve just mentioned ‘Shall I compare thee to the summers day?
Skip to 14 minutes and 16 seconds Thou art more lovely and more temperate’. There isn’t a single enjambment in that whole 14-line sonnet, because it’s laid out as clear, thought through fact. ‘I know what’s going on. You are not like the summer because the summer will fade. Spring, summer, they all fade. They all change. Everything dies. But no, not you. You are not going to die, because you’re in this poem. And that’s going to live forever’, an act of breathtaking conceit from Shakespeare. But of course, as we’re talking about it now, he was quite right. I think the other thing, of course, the line ending, it gives you that pause. I think one of the great poets for those enjambed, or run-on lines, is Wordsworth.
Skip to 14 minutes and 57 seconds It’s a wonderful line where he’s talking about listening for the sound of an owl. And he has a line, ‘while I hung’ at the end of the line, ‘listening’ in the next line. And you hang for a moment in the pause. The blank space at the end of a line just makes you pause. It makes you slow down. And then the thought is completed. Yes, and another great one is Wilford Owen, who is worth looking at again because almost certainly people look at Wilford Owen with a view to his disgust and… at war. And, of course, that is the main feeling that comes from it. Easy perhaps not to notice what an extraordinary craftsman he is.
Skip to 15 minutes and 41 seconds He’s truly in the tradition of Keats as one of the most gifted prosodic craftsmen that the English language can boast. And so a lot of his affects are a perfect example of how the powerful emotion - and there could hardly of been a more powerful emotion than the feeling he had in the middle of that appalling war - was channelled into a technical expression of poetry which has rarely been surpassed. And some people may think that that’s a bit of a contradiction that if you’re feeling that emotional, you wouldn’t then stop to package it in such perfect poetic form.
Skip to 16 minutes and 21 seconds But actually, that is the great perhaps counter-intuitive achievement of all art is that it often seems the more structured it is and the more… there’s a thing we might come to talking about emotion, in particular and feeling in poetry, which is a famous phrase of T.S. Eliot’s, which is one that people have puzzled over and sounds a bit grand and intellectual, which is an ‘objective correlative’. And this is quite hard to explain, really, because partly because I don’t really understand it. But I glimpse what it means, which is something to do with emotion having to be earned. It can’t just be put out there.
Skip to 17 minutes and 2 seconds And in good poems, emotion isn’t just splurged out in a wail or a moan or a rage or whatever the emotion may be. It’s controlled. And it’s held back usually. And then it may come strongly. But it’s the very fact that it’s channelled into chosen words makes it so powerful, and indeed so enduring. Otherwise, it’s a tantrum. And great poetry isn’t a tantrum unless you’re talking of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ perhaps. Yeah, I suppose the other aspect of the objective correlative is exactly that idea of finding something exterior, finding an object. An object, yes An image, typically. Poetry itself is so often made of images that somehow speaks to your interior state. Yes. Why is it poets are so fascinated by nature?
Skip to 17 minutes and 53 seconds Because in nature around us, whether it’s the roll of a wave at the sea, or the sound of the storm, or the flight of a skylark, somehow nature can give us external images… Yes. …which are evocative of internal moods. They become symbolic. Yes, exactly.
Skip to 18 minutes and 13 seconds There’s another famous phrase, also two words, which is used often to describe that sense of the poet immersing himself in nature, not in order to glorify nature, but to find some truth about himself for the ‘egotistical sublime’ is the phrase that is often used. And it’s rather nice because it seems like it’s a contradictory. If it’s egotistical, how can it be sublime? Yes, of course, that was Keats’ term for the thing that he sort of admired, but also didn’t admire in Wordsworth, because Wordsworth was the great poet of projecting his own feelings into external nature. And Keats sometimes felt that there was a bit too much of that. And he proposed this alternative phrase ‘negative capability’.
Skip to 19 minutes and 0 seconds What do you understand by negative capability? That you imagine somehow subsuming yourself into things. It’s a phrase that, I find it really, really useful sometimes to describe even - it sounds appalling, a betrayal of high art - a piece of technology, for example. There’s a recent new piece of technology that’s come out. And people say, what’s it like? What’s it like? How does it work? I said, well, the strange thing is it’s… all its achievements are in its… it subsumes itself. You don’t notice it. And it finds an achievement through its lack of presence, which is subsuming the egotistical into presumably… is that was that what he meant? I think it’s part of what he meant.
Skip to 19 minutes and 53 seconds I think the other thing that sort of relates to the idea of the possibility of poetry as a kind of stress management tool is he describes negative capability as the opposite of a state of irritably reaching after fact and reason, the idea that sometimes we want an answer where we’re always thinking about the next thing. But it’s almost like a state of calm or of inner calm. Yes. You’re just content to let it be. And often, the best poetic moments do seem to be exactly that. They’re moments where you’re content to reside in the moment without this looking to the future.
Skip to 20 minutes and 35 seconds Yes, and I would add to that that there is a deep sense that poetry tries to achieve or find the reality of things, not of ideas.
Skip to 20 minutes and 51 seconds Nature, the reason it looks at rocks and water, and the reason it might look at a small thing, a chair, or a pair of shoes, is because it finds reality in those things, not in the abstract. And the idea that poetry is an ethereal thing that looks at the sky and ideas and the glory of this or the terror of that, is that it’s tested on the pulses indeed, as Keats would say. It’s tested on the whatness of things, the quiddity of things, as it is sometimes called. Gerard Manley Hopkins uses this word. Yes. ‘Inscape’, doesn’t he? Yes, he does. The idea of somehow arresting the essence of a thing, a movement, a moment.
Skip to 21 minutes and 32 seconds Indeed, absolutely, and it’s the fingernail-ness of a fingernail is crucial. And in a sense, poets are like other artists in that sense, painters, painters are constantly striving to find the absolute essence of what it is they are painting. Cezanne would bore his friends endlessly talking about how to achieve a tomato on a canvass. And as we know, he proabably did that sort of thing better than anyone who’s ever lived. But it’s no accident that he did better than anyone who lived because he thought about it more than anyone who had ever lived. And he practised, which comes back to the craft.
Skip to 22 minutes and 3 seconds There is that sense that we can all write poetry because we all have language, something you say in the book. But we can’t necessarily all write good poetry. But we can develop a craft.
Skip to 22 minutes and 18 seconds What tips would you have for someone just wanting to try their hand at putting feelings, thoughts, moments into a verse? I would suggest they might look at their favourite poem that has form. And it can be ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’. It can be a sonnet. It can be an ottava rima or something. They don’t have to know what the form is, but just observe it, look at it, count the syllables and the beats in each line, and then write out a grid and then do a silly verse that fits it exactly. And then think, well, OK, I’m going to write a poem about that. It could be about my daily commute. It could be about anything, really.
Skip to 23 minutes and 3 seconds But just try out writing in that form. And I think people amaze themselves when they do that. Whereas if you just sit sucking a pen thinking, I want to write a poem. Here’s a blank sheet of paper. What do I do? There’s no grid. And I would emphasise, Jonathan, and I’m sure you’d agree, that I am no way devaluing free verse, verse that doesn’t have form. It’s just by definition, can’t give any advice about it because it’s up to the… But in a sense, you do need to earn it, don’t you? It’s very striking, even with a great poet like Shakespeare, he actually begins with very, very regular forms. In early Shakespeare, there’s a lot more rhyme.
Skip to 23 minutes and 46 seconds There’s a lot more end-stopped lines. His verse gets freer as he goes on. But he earns it. And all the great poets, they become poets through reading poetry and through learning, often very overtly imitating the techniques of existing poets. Then, eventually, they find their own voice. They find their own freedom just as with a musician or a painter. A painter has to start by doing life classes and basic drawing stuff. A musician has to learn by actually learning some chords. Yes, once you’ve got the basic techniques, then you’re free to break the rules. Exactly, exactly. I couldn’t agree with you more.
Skip to 24 minutes and 28 seconds Drawing, life classes, they are pretty obvious, though not everyone agrees with them. But I think the best comparison is music. No one would suggest that you can learn the guitar by ignoring Western harmony. It just is not going to happen, you know? And we’ve all probably had friends who go around saying, ‘oh, I’ve got this new D 9th. Have you seen how that works?’ And they’d show you and you’d go, ‘ooh, wow, that’s amazing. How about this one here? C 7th’. I go, ‘ooh, god, that’s really good’. And somehow it’s rather cool when you do that with music. ‘Yeah, I learned that on the guitar. That’s really fun’.
Skip to 25 minutes and 0 seconds But when you say, ‘ooh, have you seen this new, anapestic line’, or whatever, they’ll go, ‘ooh’. It doesn’t have quite the drama to it somehow. There’s a very… talking of anapests, which is a perfect example of a Greek word… ‘Half a league, half a league, half a league onward’. Those are anapestic, aren’t they? Yes, there’s a very funny… you can find on YouTube, Robert Browning, who was invited to dinner and was surprised to have the inventor of a phonograph-type thing, a bit like… he was a rival of Edison’s. And he asked Browning to record something on it. And he wrote a poem called, ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’ which is an anapest.
Skip to 25 minutes and 42 seconds And it’s Supposed to represent the horses thundering because it’s… ‘I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he. I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three. God speed cried the watch as the gate bolts withdrew. Speed echoed the walls to us galloping through’. Anyway, he starts like that, and he goes, (IMITATING VOICE) ‘I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he. I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three’. (RHYTHMIC SOUNDS) Because he had completely forgotten it. But the rhythm took him to the end. It’s rather charming. It’s very sweet.
Discussing poetic form with Stephen Fry
Before we look at some poems in more detail, we thought it would be a good idea to find out some more about how poetry works.
Well known as an actor, presenter, author and comedian, Stephen Fry is also a poetry enthusiast, and has written a guide to writing poetry entitled The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. In the video Stephen will talk us through the technicalities of poetry, looking at rhythm, metre, form, rhyme, enjambment and caesura. We’ll also hear about how form can help poets to shape and express emotion, and why it is important to read poetry slowly, and to read it aloud.
During the conversation, we discuss a number of different texts and poems. We’ve listed these below, including links where possible, in case you’d like to spend some more time looking at them, but none of this reading is essential to the course:
- ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, Thomas Gray
- ‘Nuns fret not’, William Wordsworth
- ‘The Convergence of the Twain’, Thomas Hardy
- ‘On the Grasshopper and the Cricket’, John Keats
- ‘Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, William Shakespeare
- Macbeth’s speech, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, l. 2374-2385
- Leontes’ speech, The Winter’s Tale, Act 1, Scene 2, l. 281-298
- T. S. Eliot on the ‘Objective Correlative’, in the essay ‘Hamlet and His Problems’
- John Keats on ‘Negative Capability’, in his letter to George and Tom Keats, December 1817
- ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, Alfred Lord Tennyson
- ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’, Robert Browning
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