If only all Poetry could be read by Alan Rickman

Posted 18 March, 2011 by Tom Sykes
Categories: Poetry, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , ,

One of the key rules that Stephen Fry insists on in “The Ode Less Travelled” is that all the poetry in the book, and all that is created during the exercises must be read out loud. Fry is of the opinion that poems are meant to be read out loud, certainly poems that use traditional meter are. I find myself agreeing with him on this point. The obvious analogy is with sheet music. You might be able to read the notes, understand the beat and even ‘hear’ the music in your head, but it will never be the same as hearing the music performed. Poetry, as was touched on in the last post, is all about beat and rhythm and it is therefore feels much more alive when read aloud. A good example is with enjambment. While you may have continued the sentence across two lines of a poem it has the effect of creating a small, sometimes imperceptible additional pause when read out loud. Try it in your head then out loud:

I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of dancing Daffodils;
Along the Lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee: —
A poet could not but be gay
In such a laughing company:
I gazed — and gazed — but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.

Of course, we’re not used to reading things out loud, we get self-conscious. However, reading privately is relatively modern behaviour, up to the early Eighteenth Century it would actually be a little odd to read exclusively on your own. In his diary it is clear that Samuel Pepys often read out loud to his household, in Alehouses and outdoors.

This brings me to the thing I wanted to share, which is the ‘The Song of Lunch’ by Christopher Reid. Watching this is what jolted me back into thinking about poetry again. It was on the BBC back in October. I wasn’t sure whether to watch it when it was on the box, I think the phrase ‘narrative poem’ put me off a little (as all labelling inevitably does). In actual fact the poem, the direction and the performances of Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson are sublime. If poetry performed out loud can lift the spirits as much as this, even when the main character is an utterly unsympathetic arse, then count me in. Someone has rather illegally managed to sneak it onto YouTube. Sadly the second part is now missing, but this first part is worth watching anyway.




Meter Made

Posted 11 March, 2011 by Tom Sykes
Categories: Iambic Pentameter, Meter, Poetry, Tetrameter, Trimeter, Trochaic

Tags: , , , ,

Iambic Pentameter, so simple, so effective. Five pairs of stressed and unstressed beats (or Iambs) to a line. Of course it is harder than it sound. Mr Fry reminds us in the opening to this chapter that it is not just about pairs of syllables (jump to 10:00), there must be a natural stress or beat present, the beat is all important and the words you choose must work. Once you get acclimatised to finding where the beat falls in a word then it is easy to manipulate it. So our Trochees and Pyrrhic substitutions are just moving the beat around. We’re not just poets, we’re flipping musicians as well. In this chapter Teacher Fry looks beyond five beats to the other Meters that are regularly used in poetry.

3 beats in a line – Trimeter

4 beats in a line – Tetrameter

6 beats in a line – Hexameter

7 beats in a line – Heptameters

8 beats in a line – Octometer

12 beats in a line – Dodecohedronemeter… (ok I made that one up)

Each of these have their own pedigree in English poetry. The effect that a different Metre can have on the tone of the poem is very interesting. Trimeter (3) for example makes for a pacy little number:

The rank and file will march

To War in Foreign fields

Tetrameter (4) feels oddly familiar as soon as you start reading or writing it. This is because four beats is so ingrained in popular culture, most pop music is written in common time. If you sat down to write a little poetic ditty, perhaps for a birthday card or a love poem, you’d probably end up writing it with four beats, it just feels good (like spaghetti on naked flesh… um… just me?).

What got my attention was the alternating combination of Tetrameter (4 beats) and Trimeter (3 beats), which are familiar to us in the form of  ballads. I regularly come across these in my other life as a romancer of the historical as they were incredibly popular in the Seventeenth Century. The English seem to turn to ballads by default in this period and they crop up in all sorts of texts. The popularity of this poetic form made them particularly useful as catchy propaganda during the English civil war. I guess they were the jingles of their day. Here is an example of a pre-civil war ballad:

God prosper long our noble king,
Our lives and safeties all!
A woeful hunting once there did
In Chevy Chase befall.

To drive the deer with hound and horn
Earl Percy took his way;
The child may rue that is unborn
The hunting of that day!

Read it out loud and you’ll see that it trips along at a familiar pace. The ballad is entitled ‘Chevy Chase a National Lampoons Hunting Vacation’, or possibly not.

As well as alternating the metre between lines our teacher introduces us to the idea of alternating the Iambic beat, so a line of pure Iambic (ti-TUM) could be followed by a line of Trochaic (TUM-ti). Again this really does have a noticeable effect on the poem, and it is surprising how your brain picks up on the shift. This is not included in the exercise, but I thought I’d have a go to illustrate it

That Cat again, it shat upon my soil

Catch it Cook it save the precious Plants

Ok sleuths, you might notice something odd about the second line. I’ve utilised my Fry’s final lesson of the day, which is to drop the final unstressed beat from the second line. This has the effect of taking a trochaic line and giving it a definitive ending, where normally it would end weakly. It works quite nicely, and you don’t miss that final weak beat.

To the exercise! This was a forced quickie (ahem), choose a topic then take 45 minutes maximum to  come up with:

  1. Two sets of four line poems using Iambic Tetrameter.
  2. Two sets of four line poems using alternating Tetrameter and Trimeter (like a ballad).
  3. Two sets of four line poems using Trochaic Tetrameter with alternating pure and shortened lines.

The theme is transport.

1. Tetrameter

The waiting game begins again

The bus is late no reason then

To rush so fast to get from bed

asleep for ten or twenty more


The day in which I choose to sleep

Will surely be that rarity

When speeding round the corner I’ll

See two of them go flying by


2. Alternating Iambic Tetrameter and Trimeter

Standing at the station waiting

These journeys aren’t for me

The wind and rain goes whipping by

I really need to pee


The Train is crammed with tired sad souls

I squeeze my carcass in

The destination never worth it

But onward I begin


3. Trochaic Tetrameter with alternating pure and shortened lines


Lifting off from Heathrow early

Fearing what the flight may bring

Now they drone of safety training

I just muse on falling Planes


Staring through the tiny window

Little worlds just spreading out

Endless stretches of the tundra

Caring nothing of above


I think I managed it ok. I’ve not marked the emphasis, so have a go yourself, did I get it right? The next exercise involves Ternary Feet (?!).

Magnetic Poetry

Posted 4 March, 2011 by Tom Sykes
Categories: Poetry

Tags: ,

Grandpa's Poetry for Charlie

A diversion from Stephen Fry for this week’s post. I can’t remember when we got the magnetic fridge poetry, or even who bought it, but it was a stroke of genius. It was also the closest I got to writing poetry for some considerable time. I’m finding, as I write these poetry posts, that having a constraint usually proves to be a boon for creativity. In the case of magnetic poetry you are working with a restricted set of words (indeed a diminishing set as they slowly get dislodged and strewn across the kitchen floor). I guess it helps that kitchen is an informal, social place as well. It’s hard to be too ponderous and deep when you’re arranging little words on a dented, white door, trying to manoeuvre around holiday souvenirs and shopping lists. Thanks to the location guests often find it irresistible to add their own addition to the collection. Discovering that somebody has left a hastily constructed bit of verse, just for us, is always a pleasant surprise.

Although the results are usually frivolous sometimes what you find can be quite moving. In November my first child was born. As the first Grandson in both mine and my wife’s families he was in high demand for visits. As a result we found ourselves exhausted, running only on elation and chocolate, playing host to all the families, often all at once. Events blur into one now, but it was chaotic in our little house for those first few weeks, though I wouldn’t have had it any other way. One day, after the visits had died down and visiting chaos was being replaced by everyday baby chaos, I happended upon this poem on the fridge and it made my weep. It was written by my Dad, Charlie’s Grandpa:

sweet little child

grow up happy

live in peace

for you bring promise


I’m not normally one for crying in front of the fridge, well unless I discover we’re out of tonic water for the gin. Goes to show that the simplest poetry can be moving and that it can spring up in the oddest of places.

Aside from my Dad’s poem, my other favourite is one-wot-i-wrote, you’ll agree it’s a modern classic:


I keep a live puddle monster

here in my dark little garden

I take his moonfire dreams

though never more than it

would like


Poetry, it flows through my veins really.

Exercise 5 coming up next week.

A Weak Ending but a Pyrrhic Victory

Posted 25 February, 2011 by Tom Sykes
Categories: Iambic Pentameter, Poetry, Pyrrhic, Trochaic, Weak Ending

Tags: , , , , ,

To the casual reader I might get away with this, a second February poesy seamlessly following on from the last, but one look at the year and I’m rumbled. Yes. I know. It’s been a year since I last wrote any poetry. I suck. My suckiness aside, it’s been one hell of a year and in further mitigation of my poesy block I did have to manoeuvre around the “Curse Of Page 30” (see my first post).

Having established the desirability of ‘cheating’ in the last post (come on it’s only been a year, catch up here and here) the “Curse” requires further cheatiness and manipulation of the Iambs (the ti-TUM beat). These manipulations are called Weak Endings, Trochaic Subsitutions and Pyrrhic Substitutions. They sound horrifically classical, something Boris Johnson might get all hot and excited about. Is it any wonder I gave up? The problem with these tricks is that they really do require you to work your ear and get on top of the ti-TUM ti-TUM of Iambic Pentameter, because if you’ve been blagging it, there’s no way you’ll manage these. I may have been blagging it.

So, having an urgent requirement to write something that will earn me some money (see here) I have turned to poetry as a tool of helpful procrastination and decided to push through this little barrier. So what do these terms mean? Let’s start with Weak Endings.

Weak Endings are when line is written so that rather than ending on the usual definite TUM end-beat, it instead ends on a ‘weak’ beat, the ‘ti’. This is usually done by adding a syllable. It handily enables you to end lines on words that would otherwise never fit i.e. anything ending in -ing. The classic example would be (bold indicates emphasis and slash indicates Iamb pair):

To be/ or not/ to be/ that is/ the quest/ion

Teacher Fry also informs us that this enables us to create a question and answer within two lines of a poem, something mastered by Kipling. All good in theory, but suprisingly hard to do without making a line sound utterly conceited.

The next two concepts are to do with switching from the Ti-TUM by temporarily substituting the Iambs with a different emphasis or beat. In the case of Trochaic it is reversed to TUM-ti. In the case of Pyrrhic the accented beat is lost entirely to leave you with ti-ti. This is where my brain begins to bubble over slightly and I start compulsively checking twitter and the football results.

Trochaic is commonly used at the beginning or end of a line as the effect is generally used to create dramatic emphasis. Indeed,  I’ve been finding it hard to use them without creating a little dramatic pause, but then that might just be due to the ridiculous 19th Century way in which I read poetry out loud (in tights with arms stretched out imperiously). A randomly picked line from Shakespeare to demonstrate:

Rome, thou/ has lost/ the breed/ of no/ble bloods.

The trick is to do this without ruining the basic Iambic pentameter rhythm in the rest of the line.

Pyrrhic substitution is used to emphasis the next Iamb pair and is commonly used in the second to last pair to build the final emphasis. So, you make the fourth Iamb dull to increase the impact of the last. The problem that I’ve been having is that the more I try to emphasise the rhythmic flow of a line, the more everything just starts to sound like Iambic Pentameter in my head. This is where I call on a fellow pupil to help me, or my wife as I usually call her. It helps to have someone read your lines out loud who doesn’t know how they are ‘supposed’ to sound. I’ve lost a lot of pretend Pyrrhic lines that way. The eminent Mr Fry uses the following example:

Now is/ the win/ter of/ our dis/content

In that example the Pyrrhic device is delivered in the third and fourth Iamb, setting up that rumbling: DISconTENT!

Unsurprisingly, the  activity that follows requires us to use all of the devices. The twist being that we would be scored according to how many of them we manage to use:

  • 5 points for every Trochaic and Pyrrhic substitution
  • 2 points for Enjambment
  • 2 points for a Weak Ending

What I found particularly difficult was letting loose all these tricks in the allotted sixteen lines without entirely losing a sense of the natural rhythm of the material that we’re meant to be working in (the metre). Surely the whole point of these devices are that they have the most impact when used sparingly, to break up the natural flow? In the end I just wrote as many normal lines as I could and then tried to rewrite as many times as I could, adding in the devices where possible. The score to beat (Stephen Fry’s that is) is 106.

I’ll write the lines out naked to begin with and then repeat them again but marking where I think the emphasis and beats are and with the scoring.

Naked Lines


In this  I might  be wrong but then who can say.

Perhaps I’m not as mad as you might think,

To try and write a line or two that meriting

Nothing may end a poet’s nascent career.


Asleep in arms across my chest so tightly,

At last fortune has flicked in my favour.


Slowly, alarm begins to take control.

Awake, or not, I launch toward my work.


The bar now dry I’ll launch heaving revolt.

A cry for help I’m falling so far down.


Coffee, temptress, why are you so alluring?

I guess it’s due to caffeine in my blood.


The mouth, so red and warming, its encroaching

Takes wine to death and robs its bottled peace.


A fools engrained belief attacked and faltering,

Renew yourselves by letting go at last.


Lines with emphasis and scoring


In this/ I might/ be wrong/ but then/ who can/ say.  [Weak ending = 2]

Perhaps/ I’m not/ as mad/ as you/ might think,/ [Enjambment = 2]

To try/ and write/ a line/ or two/ that merit/ing  [Weak = 2, Enj. = 2]

Nothing/ may end/ a poet’s/ nascent /career./   [Trochaic = 5]


Asleep/ in arms/ across/ my chest/ so tight/ly,  [Weak = 2, Enj. = 2]

At last /fortune/ has flicked/ in my/ favour./ [Pyrrhic = 5]


Slowly/, alarm/ begins/ to take/ control./ [Trochaic = 5]

Awake,/ or not,/ I launch/ toward/ my work./ [Pyrrhic = 5]


The bar/ now dry/ I’ll launch/ heaving/ revolt./ [Trochaic = 5]

A cry /for help/ I’m fall/ing so /far down./ [Pyrrhic = 5]


Coffee/, temptress,/ why are/ you so/ allure/ing? [Trochaic = 5]

I guess/ it’s due/ to caff/eine in/ my blood./ [Pyrrhic = 5]


The mouth,/ so red/ and warm/ing, its/ encroach/ing [Pyrrhic = 5 Weak = 2, Enj. = 2]

Takes wine/ to death/ and robs/ its bott/led peace./ [Trochaic = 5]


A fools/ engrained/ belief /attacked/ and falter/ing, [Weak = 2, Enj. = 2]

Renew/ yourselves/ by lett/ing go/ at last./ [Pyrrhic = 5]



The results just in: 75 points. I’ll take that, and I actually quite like some of the lines. Nevertheless, I’m sure I’ve got it wrong in some places, so feel free to re-score me if you like and have a go yourself in the comments section.

There we have it, having dusted myself off and got back on the bicycle I can move beyond the dreaded ‘Curse of Page 30′ and continue peddling on. In the next activity our dutiful teacher, Mr Fry, takes us on a journey to the “Land of Other Metres’. Yikes.

Rules are there for breaking… Enjambment and Caesura

Posted 5 February, 2010 by Tom Sykes
Categories: caesura, enjambment, Poetry

Tags: , , ,

In the last chapter Mr Fry taught us about the rules of writing in iambic pentameter (ti-tum, ti-tum etc). This chapter is about how to tweak and bend those rules to add life to a line of verse, in particular playing with the rules of line structure through: Enjambment and Caesura.

Enjambment – is when the sentence does not end at the end of a line of Iambic Pentameter but strides on into the next line.

Caesura –  a pause or ‘cut’ within a line, such as a comma or full stop.

‘They are crucial liberators of the iambic line… allowing the rhythms and hesitations of human breath, thought and speech to enliven and enrich the verse’.

But if we can bugger around with the rhythm of the verse is it still iambic pentameter? If it is still within iambic metre then why bother restricting ourselves to that line structure anyway? Why not make the line 14 iambs long, or fifteen?

At this point Mr Fry shouts at us in CAPITAL LETTERS. I normally hate it when people write in capital letters as it is essentiality the equivalent of adding the stage direction: actor shouts. I have a work colleague who does this in e-mails, and am often tempted to ring up and respond by bellowing down the phone my answer just to get my point across (I should add that I do not do this as I am not entirely a git). I’ll forgive shouty Fry, he is a teacher after all.

By the by, the only person who can legitimately speak in capital letters is Death:


"I meant," said Ipslore bitterly, "what is there in this world that makes living worthwhile?" Death thought about it. CATS, he said finally. CATS ARE NICE.

Essentially, the metre of the poem, in our case iambic pentameter, is the material in which we are working. To move completely away from the material is to move into another genre entirely, a painter moving into sculpting for example. But within that medium the rules can be tweaked and changed in order to find the most apposite way of expressing the point.

‘Metre is the primary rhythm, the organised background against which the secondary rhythms of sense and feeling are played out.’

Here I feel a little parallel coming on: Twitter. A lot of people struggle to comprehend the 140 character restriction on twitter. They say such things as; ‘you can’t say anything worthwhile in 140 characters’ or ‘why bother restricting it to 140 characters, why not more or less’. The point is that the rule is what makes Twitter interesting. It is the struggle to clarify your thoughts and then fit them into those 140 characters. Like the ‘cheats’ in poetry there are other tricks and tweaks in Twitterland that help enable you to do this within the primary rule of 140 characters, a clever abbreviation, a smart bit of punctuation or a trailing sentence…

And so it is with metre. This is why the ‘tricks’ such as enjambment and caesura come to play. They are two key ways to work creatively within the boundaries of the metric medium.

So, the task at hand is to start off writing five pairs of non-rhyming Iambic lines, under five specific topics. These first five pairs of lines (a) should have no caesuras or enjambments.

The next task is to write another five pairs of lines (b), under the same topics and with the same meaning as the first lines, but to construct them with caesuras and enjambments.


1. Precisely what you see and hear outside your window

(a) without:

I see outside the dark of winter time.

The sound of wind against the chimes all night.

(b) with:

The darken’d winter night, it lays outside

My room so cold, while chimes inflict their noise.


2. Precisely what you’d like to eat, right this minute.

(a) without:

A fleshy burger, red and charred for me,

Too charred I think as smoke alarms whine on.

(b) with:

The smoke! It chokes my lungs and yet desire

For beef and bun and cheese consumes my mind.


3. Precisely what you last remember dreaming about.

(a) without:

At work I wrote some text which caused a row.

A fools damn wit caused me forthwith to go.

(b) with:

I dream’t a stifling dream in which I came

To grief. Alas! An ill thought brief the cause.


4. Precisely what uncompleted chores are niggling at you

(a) without:

A sink so blocked and gross it needs to drain,

The fat and gunk inside the bend will stay.

(b) with:

Foul reek and stringy goo, sometime food scraps

Cling tight inside your drainy throat all day.


5. Precisely what you hate about your body

(a) without:

My knee it clicks and moans at strain and graft.

This moaning joint a feeble thing to see.

(b) with:

Achilles heel? Try knee. A click, a clunk,

A squeak, a pop. Achilles had it good.


How was that? From the writers point of view it worked, I much prefer the (b) pairs of lines. This may partly be because in adding the Caesuras and Enjambments I had to think much more carefully about the sense of each line and how the break or carry over affected or added to the meaning. I can see why Mr Fry got all capitally on me.

I should also say as a general rule for this blog,  if you have an idle moment to follow the exercises as well then please feel free to join in via the comments boxes. I’d love to see other peoples examples.


Next exercise takes us to the dreaded page 30 (where previous attempts have perished before) and Weak Endings, Trochaic and Pyrhhic Substitutions. Don’t worry, it all sounds greek to me as well (Zing!).


Ti-Tum, Ti-Tum – Iambic Pentameter

Posted 22 January, 2010 by Tom Sykes
Categories: Iambic Pentameter, Poetry


After last week’s introduction, this week some verse scribbled from the Gentleman Administrator’s scratchy and underused quill. The teacher, and by teacher I mean of course Mr Stephen Fry, begins with Iambic Pentameter. Iambic Pentameter should be familiar to anyone who has ever heard a line of Shakespeare, and according to that fount of knowledge, dictionary.com:

it consists of a line ten syllables long that is accented on every second beat.

I vaguely understood what Iamabic Pentameter was before picking up ‘The Ode’, but the device that Fry uses which helped to explain it best is this:

ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum

and to borrow a verse from the master

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

And so to the activity. The instruction was to write twenty lines with some being pairs and not to spend too long composing them. Here goes:

1.   Espresso cup it warms my hand and brain.

2.   His thoughts in pen and voice are so forthright,
3.   You’d think he’d got god’s gift to set it right.

4.   King Charles, was throned and crowned monarch today.

5.   Web Search, again, web search, so much in vain.

6.   The Tweets distract but then attracts all sorts
7. Of folk, they talk they quote and joke all day.

8.   Spaghetti in the pot 10 mins it’s done.

9.   Snow on the trees, snow on the lawn all week.
10. To clear it all’s a job too far for me.

11. Excuse this bard for all the crap he writes.

12. Laptop, tip tap, is all I hear all day.

13. Fat mice cannot surmount a cat on crack.

14. Forethwith this book will go back on the shelf.

15. I-Phone you rang but no one heard a thing.

16. The Fry he said to write some more for him.

17. A line of verse cannot be squitted out.
18. Oh dear my imagery has gone to pot.

19. What light through yonder window breaks.
20. Ok, I’m caught. I stole that one from Bill.

That was surprisingly hard, but also oddly addictive and its weird how quickly the rhythm gets stuck in your head. How did I do? I think there are a couple of dodgy ones in there, mostly because its hard to pick words with multiple syllables that have the correct stress. I found that the stress of the syllable sounded right in my head but often was ‘technically’ wrong or sounded awful when read out load. Which reminds me, Mr Fry is rather strict about insisting on the verses being read out loud, or at least mouthed. While he’s definitely right, it makes you look pretty odd in the library.

Next week: End Stopping, Enjambment and Cesura.

I Don’t Write Poetry. Yet.

Posted 14 January, 2010 by Tom Sykes
Categories: Introduction, Poetry

Tags: , ,

I don’t write poetry.

That’s probably a bad start, isn’t it?

Let me start again. I love writing, mostly about history, mostly non-fiction. However, the truth remains that while I do love writing I’ve never attempted any poetry. Or at least I’ve not attempted any poetry since forced to pen painfully self-conscious attempts under the beady eye of an English teacher.

A few years ago I received a copy of “The Ode Less Travelled” by Stephen Fry as a present.

“The Ode Less Travelled” is a book about poetry, more specifically it’s a book in which Fry sets out to teach the reader how to write poetry, and in his own words:

I have a dark and dreadful secret. I write Poetry…

…I believe our poetic impulse is blocked by the false belief that poetry might on the one hand be academic and technical and on the other hand formless and random. It seems to many that while there is a clear road to learning music, gardening or watercolours, poetry lies in inaccessible marshland, no pathways, signposts, just the skeletons of long-dead poets poking through the bog…

…I cannot teach you how to be a great poet or even a good one. Dammit, I can’t even teach myself that. But I can show you how to have fun with the modes and forms of poetry as they have developed over the years… I will give you the tools, you can finish the job.

When I first got this book I was enthusiastic, I was convinced by Mr Fry that poetry was worth a go and that I could learn the basics and take it from there. It was to be a new dawn of poetic expression…

I got to page 30.

The book went back on the shelf not to be looked at for three years. I suspect the problem lay not with the teacher but with the pupil. You see, after each chapter the book sets activities and I am a fundamentally lazy arse and couldn’t be bothered. Not completing the activities renders the book slightly pointless.

So what has changed? Over the last six months I have discovered the joys of blogging about history and through this I realised something rather fundamental about my nature: Unless I have a deadline I won’t do anything. But this is the joy of blogging, despite the deadline being entirely self-impossed it gets you into the habit of regularly researching and writing for publication, usually at a set time. For me, I like to write something, however small it might be, at least twice a week.

And so, to the point of this blog. I will aim to read a chapter of  “The Ode Less Travelled” each week and upload my attempts at the exercises in a weekly post. The point isn’t to write great poetry, but to have a crack at something new. I’ll write about how I found the experience and hopefully give some insight into a prose ridden writer’s pursuit of the poesy.

Activity 1 will be ‘Iambic Pentameter’