The following exercises are writing assignments from Stephen Fry’s excellent book The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. Some of them were very challenging and it took me about half a year of procrastination to finish. Reading Fry’s examples for each exercise was very entertaining and I looked around on the internet, expecting to find many examples written by others. Sadly, I didn’t have much luck finding any, which is one of the reasons I’ve posted my own writings in the hope of entertaining/encouraging other readers of Fry’s book and inspiring other poetry lovers to give it a try.
NB. I’ve included abbreviated summaries of the assignments, but the book has much more detail. Also, please excuse the poor formatting on several of the poems; this free WordPress blog doesn’t give me the ability to include the indentation that I would desire.
Exercise #1 was an exercise in reading aloud and marking accents.
This exercise was to write twenty lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter, using unpolished, contemporary English in about 10 minutes. From Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, Gotham Books 2006.
- I have already thought of many lines.
- This book is good – I shouldn’t be surprised.
- I hate tomato soup and tuna too.
One guess what food was served for lunch today…
- To read good poetry fulfills the soul.
- The house is full of mess that is not mine.
I’ll make the kids clean up before they eat.
- Both dogs need walking every single night.
- My tummy isn’t feeling very well.
- Her hands were old and wrinkled like a prune.
- My can of Mountain Dew is very cold.
- The hike up Pilchuck made my legs so sore
The lightest touch upon my calf caused pain.
- Please stay, don’t leave me here alone and sad.
- Procrastination is my favourite vice.
- Her face was turned to stone by Gorgon’s stare.
- It’s smart to be an optimist sometimes.
- The fork was cruel and glinted with sharp tines.
- I find it easiest to write these words,
When looking anywhere but on the page.
This exercise was to write five pairs of blank iambic pentameter in which the first line of each pair is end-stopped and there are no caesuras, followed by five pairs with the same meaning but with enjambment and at least two caesuras. Should take no more than 45 minutes.
Subjects for the pairs:
- Precisely what you see and hear outside your window.
- Precisely what you’d like to eat, right this minute.
- Precisely what you last remember dreaming about.
- Precisely what uncompleted chores are niggling at you.
- Precisely what you hate about your body.
- Outside the Window
The sun and shade transform my neighbors’ wall
and fall like spotlights on my lawn as well.
- What I’d Like to Eat
I smell spaghetti cooking on the stove
and can not think of any better dinner.
- A Recent Dream
Last night I dreamed that zombies swarmed around.
I made my house a fort and hunkered down.
- Pesky Tasks Overdue
“Five Hebrew Songs” were not that hard to learn
Which makes them easier to practice less.
- My Body
I pack sufficient weight for two or three
And also hate my hairy, scaly feet.
- Outside the Window
The world’s a stage! The sun and shade behave
Like spotlights. Lawn and wall must take a bow.
- What I’d Like to Eat
A promise made, that’s how I view the smell
Of dinner. Ah, spaghetti tastes so good!
- A Recent Dream
So glad to wake before undead can take
My fort of dreams. It was a close escape.
- Pesky Tasks Overdue
Fear motivates, it’s true. I wish I feared
Whiteacre’s songs, and thus would practice them.
- My Body
About myself, it’s feet I hate, not just
The kind in shoes, but width around my girth.
Exercise was to write 16 unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter, using pyrrhic and trochaic substitutions (5 points each), weak endings (two points each) and enjambment (two points each). Inspired by Fry’s examples, I also based my lines on news stories.
Green Day musician, Armstrong, wore his pants
Quite low and was surprised a flight attendant
Told him to raise them. His response was cheeky
And she was not amused, but made him leave.
Southwest said sorry, sucking up to him.
The outcome of a fight ‘twixt motorcycle
And tractor is not hard to picture, yet
A man (I tell myself it’s sad, not funny)
Tested this theoretical arrangement
By accident, the outcome no surprise.
A helpful teen, while cleaning out a closet
Found an old casket, black and stained and dusty.
Inside, she found a pile of human bones.
Foul play is not suspected, I still say
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows
Has some explaining that they need to do.
Total points: 74 (Fry beat me, with 106)
This exercise was to write two quatrains of standard, eight-syllable iambic tetrameter, two quatrains of alternating tetrameter and trimeter, and two quatrains of trochaic tetrameter (one in ‘pure trochee’ and one with docked weak endings in the second and fourth lines). The example subject was TV, so that’s the theme I chose.
I like to watch light-hearted shows
(My favorites are all comedy)
But drama has its place as well –
I guess the best is dramedy.
This year was tough on TV shows
And several that I liked a lot
And wished an end would never know
They took outside and cruelly shot.
Sometimes I watch too much T.V.
My brain goes dull and numb.
In times like these, I read a book
And I don’t feel as dumb.
The summer isn’t nice for those
Of us who watch TV.
Our shows all take a break, we’re left
With news and anime.
Rambling plot lines make me angry.
That is why “Lost” sucked so greatly.
Shows like “Chuck” know how to please me,
Always wrapping up quite neatly.
“Doctor Who” is entertaining.
Watch it with a cup of tea
And you’ll feel quite British even
If you live in Tennessee.
This exercise was to write some anapaestic hexameters describing how to get to your house (changed to protect my privacy) and some dactylic pentameter on the subject of cows (four dactyls and a spondee, in the classical manner), all in 40 minutes.
If you want to come visit us, start out by
finding I5 and then take
Exit two-hundred four and go east ’til
the light with a Payless beside.
Take a turn to the left and you’ll
almost be there if you take the
As you keep going straight keep in
mind we’re the third cul-de-sac to
Cows are strange animals; I can’t decide
if they look nice.
Eyes that are gentle and soft make me
certain that “yes” is
Quite the right answer until a long tongue
is then stuck out,
Licking what shouldn’t be licked, like
its nostrils. It’s so gross.
This exercise was to write verse following these rules: each half-line to contain two beats, all four following the bang, bang, bang – crash rule (alliteration on the first three beats).
We’ll be making the most of the month of October:
Steering clear of sweets and not snacking obsessively,
We’ll control our cravings and crassulent ways.
Being treated too much takes away the fun.
Food that’s “verboten” includes frosting and cake.
Of simple foods, celery is certainly the worst.
Quiet, stomach, and quit your querulous rumblings.
I wish to lose weight without effort.
Clearly, I ate carrots only because I was starving.
Ice cream can’t be consumed this month.
Fresh plans please at first, frustrate later.
I’ll shamelessly shun my diet for Hawaiian shave ice.
I don’t miss much but Mt. Dew.
If I don’t dine after dinner, I’ll shrink.
Soup for supper sounds very tasty.
Fix me food that fills me up.
I’d choose chocolate over chips any day.
This exercise was to write two stanzas of alternating seven- and five-line syllabic verse on the subject of Rain. Also, two stanzas of verse running 3, 6, 1, 4, 8, 4, 1, 6, 3 on the subject of Hygiene.
I love rain’s varieties,
from the random drops
that drip unexpectedly
down from cloudless skies
to the angry storms that cow
even me and make
me run away and hide, like
the West’s wicked witch.
To be said for living
Soap and hygiene,
As I found in college where my
Dorm’s squalor and
Made my immune system
Clean forks were
Only one hot water
Away and the
Frankly disgusting state of my
Sheets did not harm
I wasted little time
This exercise was to find as many rhymes as possible for the words girl and martyr. Also, wander around noting down at least 20 things as you can see, hear or smell, then thinking of rhymes for each word.
Rhymes with girl: curl, whirl, burl, furl, hurl, knurl, purl, merle, pearl, swirl, churl
Rhymes with martyr: garter, carter, barter, smarter, charter, darter, farter, tartar, harder, larder, bombarder, starter
Tea: spree, me, tree, free, carefree, fee, coffee, golly, Godfrey, bee, ski, gee, lee, tee, flea, flee, be, knee, pee, see, sea, whee, ye, Bree, brie, agree
Drinking: finking, stinking, kinking, linking, sinking, winking, blinking, plinking, clinking
Blackberry: very, sherry, hari-kari, fairy, tarry, solitary, military, contrary, parry, dysentery, ferry, carry, dairy, merry, nary, hairy, vary, wary, February
Salt: halt, fault, malt gestalt, alt vault, assault
Drying: frying, crying, prying, scrying, trying
Oven: coven, woven, joven, cloven
Snot: hot, shot, thought, bought, taught, caught, knot, not, wrought, fought, bot, cot, dot, got, jot, lot, bon mot, ought, pot, rot, sot, tot, haute
Wheeze: sneeze, freeze, cheese, bees, trees, fleas, tease, please, geez, keys, knees, peas, seize, frieze, breeze
Listen: christen, glisten
Phone: tone, bone, cone, hone, lone, moan, pone, roan, zone, loan, stone, grown, thrown, groan, sown, blown, flown
Rustle: hustle, bustle, muscle, tussle
Hem: gem, mayhem, stem
Magnetic: barbaric, prosodic, prophetic
Television: fission, mission, incision
Comic: atomic, chronic, cosmic
Relax: axe, tarmacs, Big Macs, tracks, backs, fax, wax, stacks, knacks, wracks, racks, cracks, hacks, lax, Ajax, max, pax, quacks, sax, sacks, tacks, tax, yacks
Screen: ween, wean, green preen
Games: maims, tames, frames, dames, James, lames, names
This exercise was to imagine yourself a Victorian poet and write four or five couplets on the Tay bridge disaster. Next, write a tribute to the charge of the Light Brigade.
A mighty bridge, until the day
A wind whipped up the River Tay –
Tay Railway Bridge was built to last
But couldn’t stand the wintery blast.
The engineers had a mighty lapse
The upper girders all collapsed.
A train with 80 souls aboard
Fell and took them to the Lord.
A sadder decision no one ever made
Than Nolan’s, a captain of our Light Brigade.
He ordered straight into the enemy’s guns
Six hundred, all fathers and brothers and sons.
Their deaths were assured when this order was made
The flame of their courage will not ever fade.