The Magazine

Bad to Verse

You may be a poet, and might not know it.

Jun 26, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 39 • By AARON MACLEAN
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All that Fry is doing, of course, is offering to serve as tutor in an education that any self-respecting school system would have already provided. While the reading, writing, and teaching of poetry are far from requiring any obituaries, there is no question that the days are long gone when a young lad, of a certain privileged social position, was taught in school not only to read Greek and Latin poetry, but also to write them as well, fluently, and as a precondition of college admission. This Greco-Latin foundation, combined with later attempts to restore Anglo-Saxon forms, and to import further international styles in translation, constituted English poetry.

It is still our common heritage, and in theory ought to be more widely available in a more egalitarian society. But with democratization, not only has access to education been widened, but what is being accessed has been narrowed.

Attempts to establish Fry's book as a school text would be, unfortunately, ill-advised, due to his tendency to tell jokes for grownups. ("Milton, like many 17th-and 18th-century exponents of iambic pentameter, seemed very reluctant to use feminine endings, going so far as to always mark 'heaven' as the monosyllabic 'heav'n' whenever it ended a line. Finding two hendecasyllables in a row in Paradise Lost is like looking for a condom machine in the Vatican.")

The average high school student, however, might identify with the exercise proposed on page 208: "Try a short dramatic monologue, à la Browning, in which a young man in police custody, clearly stoned off his head, tries to explain away the half-ounce of cannabis found on his person. Use the natural rhythms of speech, running-on through lines, pausing and running on again, but within rhymed iambic pentameter . . . "

But The Ode Less Travelled does serve as a welcome contribution in the oft-neglected field of the middlebrow, which was always designed for the edification of adults in a democratic society--a polity that, by its very nature, is always in danger of plunging to the lowest common cultural denominator.

It is another feature of Fry's Englishness that the class-clown act (not to mention the mock-serious packaging of the book) is meant to obscure his clear ability for serious criticism. Fry is a spirited and sensitive reader, with an infectious and knowledgeable admiration for the classics of the English tradition. His treatments of William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins (readers of whom will be relieved to learn that no exercises are assigned in sprung rhythm), Thomas Hardy, John Betjeman, W.H. Auden, and more, would be worth reading just for themselves; and his polemical style, directed at the proponents of the more antinomian style of poetic education (which he suggests be named "prose-therapy," or "auto-omphaloscopy . . . --gazing at one's own navel") is balanced and bracing.

This is a modest work of literary criticism, and readers will be happy to discover Fry to be the sort of teacher who combines an old fashioned affection for tradition with an ability to inspire love for his subject by the fluency and depth of his own enthusiasm. Jeeves, we may presume, would not object.

Aaron MacLean is a Marshall Scholar at Oxford.