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> Stephen Fry's comments on free verse, UK Observer Newspaper article link
post Oct 19 05, 08:54
Post #1


Well known writer, actor, media personality and intellectual Stephen Fry has a new book out about poety.

This link is to an article in the Observer Sunday newspaper last weekend where he says what he thinks about free verse.

WARNING: Mr Fry does not mince his words: some of his language is a little coarse (however, if a highly respectable and popular Sunday broadsheet can carry it nationally I assume MM can)


I'd be very interested in hearing what everyone thinks of his comments.

My own first response is - if free verse is emotional self-gratification, then form is merely the intellectual counterpart of the same thing.

Growling  :dragon:

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post Oct 19 05, 10:00
Post #2


Part of a letter, which I started in reply to "The Observer" (Fran's right - perhaps the best-respected British Sunday newspaper).


Stephen Fry's analysis of his own poem is simply an attack. Mr Fry, the poet, should not stand for such an unwarranted critique by Stephen Fry, the critic.

Let us look at Stephen Fry's words which I hope he doesn't expect us to seriously take to be a proper anal-ysis (just trying to join in with his use of language, if I can).

"The (poem, below) is precisely the kind of worthless a##e-dribble I am forced to read whenever I agree to judge a poetry competition. It took me under a minute and a half to write, and while I dare say you can see what utter w##k it is, there are many who would accept it as poetry ...

It isn't "w##k" at all.  A w##k can be very satisfying. This isn't, I'm afraid. Also, a minute and a half does seem an extraordinary-long time to compose this.

OK, let's have a look…

cigaretted and drinked (two non-words and is "and" - the only recognised word - really necessary?
loaded against yourself (twisted grammar - sounds to be for effect / affected)
you seem so yes bold (abused grammar, again to no purpose)
but nuded and afterloved (avoid but if you can) (Two more non-words)
you are not so strong (limp line)
are you
after all (Question mark required)

I really don't have any useful suggestions for this poem, which don't include various techniques of destruction. It does not even serve its apparent purpose - to illustrate Stephen Fry's claims of the paucity of quality freeverse - because it is the worst poem I've read for many years - so is not typical, nor indicative in any way.

Could the above poem be re-written better? Not as a great poem, simply as a reasonable freeverse poem? Yes. Here's my (two minute) attempt:

Overdosed on self-destruction -
tobacco, alcohol, anything -
your bold façade hides
a desperate craving for love.

The question format which Mr Fry suggests could be employed but is unnecessary in such a certain case.

Now, I'm sure many freeverse poets could do as well as this and very many far better. But few could produce work as bad as Mr Fry's spurious example.

Besides, why does he judge freeverse competitions (or competition which include it) if he hates it so?

There is nothing wrong with form poetry but it has no special merit over freeverse - much drivel has been written by poets in many forms, too. The quality of the work is related to the artist, not the medium per se.

Now, we've all played Mr Fry's game and assisted in the publicity and promotion of his new book. I suspect this was largely a marketing exercise. So what can we learn about promoting books from that? Oh yes, write one after becoming a celeb - newspapers will then publish any self-publicity drivel one wishes - and relative poorer people (like me) then assist free of charge.


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post Oct 19 05, 10:06
Post #3



I'm still growling, but now I'm laffin, too!

Thank you very much indeed for that wonderful anal-ysis of Fry's smug condescenion, James.

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post Oct 19 05, 11:26
Post #4


F, :) J.
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post Oct 19 05, 12:45
Post #5


Hi Fran, James

James, a brilliant response to his letter and an excellent crit of is very poor poem.

love the anal-ysis

>J>It isn't "w##k" at all.  A w##k can be very satisfying. This isn't, I'm afraid. Also, a minute and a half does seem an extraordinary-long time to compose this.
ROFL! a brill comment

I hope you do send it in to the Observer.

As to Stephen Fry's comments.  I agree why bother judging free form when you hate it.  How convenient that he keeps his own poetry private so we can't judge whether his poems are "energetic and driven" or not.  Certainly you can tell nothing from the one published below - it says nothing and is totally flat.

Perhaps we should direct him to some of the free-verse poetry on here and he can see just how powerful the writing can be, released from the constraints of form and meter.

Form poetry at its best can be excellent but a lot (like Fry's own) is not.

Still he achieved what he set out to do - get publicity for his new book which I shan't bother to buy and massage his own very big ego.

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post Oct 21 05, 09:14
Post #6


Hi Fran,

I essentially agree with Jox/James.  

Stephen Fry's sample villanelle extract was good.

Why Stephen Fry has an axe to grind for a certain class of poetry I've no idea, except a guess to sell his book.  It is like saying only certain types of plays are good enough to put on stage.  Well, that is true, but from his argument that the artist should first put some work into the enitity before making it public.

Lazy has no limits or attraction to specific categories.  Though I prefer older formats over freeverse, I am certain that I could generate a scathing argument against R&M.  

I know not this man, but maybe we should note that he is an actor by trade.

From what I see concerning popularity of freeverse, Mr. Fry is attacking his largest bread and butter audience.  

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post Oct 21 05, 11:03
Post #7


Hi Don, et al,

Stephen Fry is an interesting man. He's an Cambridge English graduate who chairs and appears on various radio and tv quiz programmes. He's both a "straight" actor (a strange term for someone of his sexual persuasion) and a comedy actor - and a comedian. He writes books and is very learned. He famously ran away from acting in a London stage play because of something like a breakdown - the precise facts never seemed to emerge but one felt very sorry for him - and for the rest of the cast and team. He writes books and loves cricket. (So can't be all bad). He appeared as Oscar Wilde in the "recent" film. (He may have directed it, too?).

I think his rant is just that, plus publicity-useful. He is a stickeler for good form and grammer so I'm not surprised he prefers form poetry but I am surprised at his apparently unintelligent outburst, given he is one of the most intelligent men in broadcasting I believe.

IMDB has an excellent potted biography of Fry Here

(Including his time doing bird).

Toodle Pip.
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post Oct 21 05, 12:20
Post #8


Thanks for the background and link regarding Mr. Fry.

Being an intelligent fellow he can take any position of a debate a publisher may request.  Profit is made pandering to the masses.

I know a few poets who believe freeverse is a corruption and is downgrading the art.  They are a credit to their opinion. I believe the art of poetry is less popular because story telling is fading.  Literature is waning; therefore,  poetry should be expected to wane.  

Surely humanity has been blessed with crappy writers since stylus was put to clay.  

Enough of swishing my toes in the sand.

Don   pumpkin.gif
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post Oct 21 05, 13:29
Post #9


Hi Don,

Swish away!

Yes, of course there are always bad and good people doing anything. Agreed.

I am far from convinced that poetry is declining. It used to be spoon-fed in schools (like much else) and now no longer is. We no longer expect pupils to be able to rote-learn and recite great chunks os little-understood poems.

But - look at the myriad od poetry sites on the Net. Look at all the people reading / writing / debating poetry. It seems to me that poetry has seldom been as alive as now and as democratised. (And poorer people have more time to think and write in general - though not everyone).

I don't accept that literature is waning either. More books (fiction and non-fiction) are read than ever. More is written and more people can read. The publishing industry is vast. Some writing / reading is poor art some very good (though I have no intention of drawing that line!) but with more people involved there are bound to be more popular choices, too.

So, I would argue that reading and writing - poetry and prose - are flourishing as never before in human history.

To me, writing in form (or freeform) is a craft, not an art. The words employed, the pictures painted and so on are the art. In t'other words, adhereing to a form (or choosing the right line-lengths in freeform) is like a sculpter being accurate with marble. It is what s/he makes with that material and the skills that is the art.

Toodle Pip, James.
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post Oct 21 05, 13:30
Post #10


Even quite good poets have decided views on the use of meter and/or rhyme

Milton: Introduction to Paradise Lost: THE Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and Virgil in Latin; Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac't indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them. Not without cause therefore some both Italian, and Spanish Poets of prime note have rejected Rhime both in longer and shorter Works, as have also long since our best English Tragedies, as a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, triveal, and of no true musical delight; which consists onely in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoyded by the learned Ancients both in Poetry and all good Oratory. This neglect then of Rhime so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteem'd an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover'd to heroic Poem from the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing.
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post Oct 21 05, 14:52
Post #11


LOL Fran,

You're right - rhyme was seen as rather vulgar then - decoration for the masses.. plus ca change. So are John Milton and Stephen Fry polar opposites or in agreement in that they both condem one approach?

C'est la vie.


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post Jul 1 07, 10:43
Post #12

Creative Chieftain

Group: Platinum Member
Posts: 1,802
Joined: 24-April 04
From: Connecticut
Member No.: 58
Real Name: Ron Jones
Writer of: Poetry

Dear All,
Having been an avowed R&Mer since I started in 2001, I can't but find this a topic that demands my response.
Mr. Fry criticizes fv. It is assumed he does it for commercial benefit and because he's just out of the mainstream.
Mr. Milton criticizes rhyme at a time that he decides to write a long, serious poem, intended to be his masterpiece. He does this after building his reputation by writing conventional R&M.
His intent to eliminate the constraints if rhyme is of course, far-sighted and in no way commercially postured.
Mr. Milton is still known for R&M and "Paradise Lost". Somehow, I can't remember any fv under his name.
Amongst my personal favorite poetry are his Il Penseroso and La Allegra. I wonder how they might read in fv, written by himself or by any poet of modern times.
Yes, I fear greatly for the glorious English poetry heritage which is under powerful assault.
I'll never understand the current rationale that reduced to simplicity reads this way.:

fv liberates its poet to express the most elegant aspects of language

R&M imposes rhythm and usually rhyme on its author and should now be encumbered
by additional restrictions originally recognized to assist the poet in his compositions. Those newly imposed restrictions are elisions, inversions, filler and repeated words, cliches, etc.
Perhaps poetic license exists only in R&M.

Can it be said that with R&M there is a laundry list of don'ts and with fv there are no don'ts?

Here's a chance for all of us to initiate a friendly debate. I'll not rely on Fry. Above are some comments available for you to take issue with.

Cheers, Ron jgd
(A reminder, my quest is to promote the poetry and poets of yore, not to destroy modern
poetry, asiatic to fv.)


Ron Jones

MM Award Winner
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