Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Stephen Fry on poetic form



A genial, inviting discussion. Evidently Fry has much fiercer things to say about poetic matters (particularly form and shapeliness) in the book... And that book is The Ode Less Travelled. Tom Disch (in the form of poet Thomas M. Disch, author of The Castle of Indolence) would be proud.

Hat tip to A. M. Juster.

10 comments:

  1. Refreshingly jargon-free. Not that words like anapaest, metre and stress aren't employed; they are shorthand for phrases that would otherwise be cumbersome. But there's a cheering absence of abstraction in this dialogue which may have achieved some kind of world record: twenty-six minutes without - as far I can recall - any reference to the word "inspiration".

    I like too the gentle insistence on the need for discipline, not just in formal structures like sonnets, as one would expect, but also the self-inflicted disciplines that lie at the heart of vers libre. As you know I can't claim in any sense to be a poet but I have learned enough to distrust the principle of immutability, that the first fine careless rapture should somehow be regarded as sacred and should be preserved as is, unedited.

    I was vaguely conscious of enjambment and was glad to hear it explained more thoroughly. Delighted to recall I'd unknowingly employed it on one occasion. I'll spare you the rest but I can't resist trotting out an extract:

    SONNET
    Damnit, I really miss ski-ing


    It wasn’t all delight. At Crans I caught
    A tip, tearing my shoulder at the ball,
    Cracking the socket, facing a distraught
    One-armed descent to the Swiss wailing wall.

    The joint was luxé, said the harridan,
    Who urged me to relax...


    As to my aborted purchase it seemed as if there was an alternative to Paypal but this proved an illusion. Ironically I have a spam email from Paypal urging me to repair broken bridges and I'll give this a trial

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    1. Sent some alternatives in the prior comments...

      This is like the half Fry-villanelle at the Guardian. Want the rest!

      Yes, it was inviting--unlike so many conversations about poetry and form. And I hope it may invite many.

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  2. Thanks for this—what a solid, civilized discussion.

    Fry contains multitudes, and as such there are things I like about him and things I like less about him, but one wonderful thing about him is that he's a living, breathing, unabashed rebuttal to claims that an interest in poetic form is inextricable from social and political conservativism. As service to poetry goes, that's just as important as his books and videos that reintroduce people to the basics of verse.

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    1. Jeff, that is such, such a crucial observation. I, too, thought it was wonderful that a Stephen Fry would embrace poetic form, and that it might be good for poets and poetry that he should do so clearly and in public. Because the whole idea of poetry in form as "hidebound" and "conservative" and "reactionary" has been created by certain writers of free verse in the U. S. who have done their best to stall poetry where it has been for a century. In the U. K., they never quite gave up on writing in form, so it's not surprising that it would be someone from the other side of the water who would speak up in this way--and it's so good that for once it is a celebrity who isn't trying to point to himself (or his own poetry) but is pointing to something greater.

      ***
      from The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/oct/16/poetryreviews.poetry:

      [Fry] expresses admiration for WH Auden, Robert Browning and other dead poets, but condemns 'the condition of English-language poetics' today as 'tattered and tired'.

      He goes on: 'Add a feeble-minded political correctness to the mix and it is a wonder that any considerable poetry at all has been written over the last 50 years. It is as if we have all been encouraged to believe that form is a kind of fascism, and that to acquire knowledge is to drive a jackboot into the face of those poor souls who are too incurious, dull-witted or idle to find out what poetry can be.'

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  3. After something of a struggle I am re-registered with Paypal, the book has been re-ordered, and je l'attends avec impatience.

    As to the sonnet extract I fear that is all I feel inclined to disclose, for two good reasons: (a) It was written several years ago and the rest of it is uninspired to say the least - my re-writing finger itches. (b) The final couplet is not only scatological but entirely incomprehensible; I have no idea now what I meant then.

    Regarding (b) I could submit the couplet for your interpretation as the far greater expert on poetic matters but I find myself invaded by an uncharacteristic attack of pudeur. Confirmation that as a versifier I am strictly bush-league; I mean how did I allow it to be published in the first place? Nevertheless I'm grateful for your curiosity.

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    1. Well, I hope you find something to like in it! And am glad you managed to wrestle Paypal into submission.

      Time is so ruthless, isn't it? Shows all our flaws and seems to introduce new ones as if by magic. Perhaps your itch to rewrite will result in new lines that you will show!

      Our words may all be forgotten, as if they never were, but I still have the belief that making things increases the substance of the soul (or whatever you choose to call that part of us that flourishes when something is made from a mouthful of air!)

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  4. In life we get so few second chances. Thanks for that.

    Not good, but better:

    SONNET
    Damnit, I really do miss ski-ing


    It wasn’t all delight. At Crans I caught
    A tip, tearing my shoulder at the ball,
    Cracking the socket, facing a distraught
    One-armed descent to the Swiss wailing wall.

    The joint was luxé*, sniffed the harridan,
    Who passed as nurse and told me not to shout,
    While yanking at this helpless Englishman
    Facing a bill her work would bring about.

    All those Swiss francs! A tax on future days
    Of hissing skis maintained in parallel,
    Of turns that contoured down the snow-slick ways,
    Of moguls charged, of schusses flown pell-mell.

    A click! They heard it first. And then an “Ah.”
    Adulthood ceded at the cookie jar.

    *French for dislocated.

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    1. So the first version ended on a scatological note... This one must be quite different. I suppose there is a perfect, ideal poem for every first line.

      Your new third stanza is snow-sibilant and anaphoric (I hope that's a word--if not, newly tweaked out of anaphora) in its growth, and then you break that flow with the "click." And that's a clever way of going.

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  5. PS: I have a soul and I strive to increase its substance. It may just linger on awhile, post-mortem, in other's memories but it will inevitably fade. Me? I must be realistic. Best to regard my soul as the equivalent of the plastic wrapping round two quarter-pounder hamburgers bought on offer at the mini-market and discarded when its usefulness is at an end. I'd like to think I'd been useful but that may be pure vanity. Usefulness and journalism may, alas, be thought incompatible.

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    1. Oddly, it is one of the glories of poetry to decline being of use in any usual sense of the word. I find it rather sad that in our day poetry has become useful for acquiring an academic job and then getting promotions and merit pay. Now there's some soulful burger-wrapping for you!

      I don't think of journalist and usefulness as being intrinsically incompatible, just as I don't think of public servant and usefulness as being intrinsically incompatible. But the goals and purposes of both roles can be changed over time until the role is not what it was. I expect you have some opinions about how journalism has changed in your lifetime that are interesting...

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.