The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by [Fry, Stephen] - get started with the poetry dietConquer your fear of poetry, readers! Try the poetry diet!

I’m not a poetry expert, but as part of my DIY-MFA I’ve been reading a poem a day as a kind of poetry diet since last February, and it is *really* helping my imagination.

I have also read Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled and learned about the technical structures of poetry. Fry makes structure highly accessible.  Here’s a snippet from Chapter 1, iambic pentameter, or five be-bops, as in this example by Fry: “I cannot stand the way you do your hair/Expect you feel the same about my tie.” I can detect the beats in that, and now, in other poetry too.

I took a short book of haiku on holiday with me last year. The poems of Basho and others spoke to me across three hundred years,  and I wrote my first poems probably since college. It was hard, but satisfying, to search for the exact word I needed. My poems are not ‘finished’ – I will keep returning to them until I feel they say what I mean.

But despite my inexperience, I enjoy reading poems and don’t mind critiquing them. Perhaps naively, I don’t see them as more difficult than other forms of creative writing –  short prose fiction, blog posts, novel excerpts.

I want to encourage everyone to read poetry. Reading poetry has many benefits including:

1. It’s (usually) short. This means that you can consume it quickly*, hold the whole in your mind, and roll it around, see what you make of it. The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology (Dover Thrift Editions) by [Bowers, Faubion] - get started with the poetry diet

2. It contains a complete idea – novels and stories take pages to develop ideas, and over the weeks, readers may see only part. In a poem, you have the complete thing, in front of you.

3. You have the luxury of re-reading to deepen your impression of the piece. (See (1) above).

4. It’s fantastic practice at recognising and responding to images painted with words.

5. Poets are really under-represented popular culture. All the column inches go to prize-winning novelists. Make a poet happy by reading their work (and blogging about it.)

I highly recommend reading a poem a day (I just go to and read the daily poem) – and reading Stephen Fry’s book, which is funny and fascinating.

I also recommend the Dover Thrift poetry books – they’re dirt cheap and have just enough poetry not to be overwhelming. My personal favourites are Shakespeare’s sonnets and the Dover collection of haiku.

The poetry diet, poem-a-day is probably the only aspect of the DIY-MFA programme that I have maintained as a habit, without lapsing. I have yet to find a handy daily source of short stories – and my attempts to read anthologies have fallen about as flat as my attempts to find new authors. (More on my love-hate relationship with reading, another time). I love non-fiction and tend to spend my leisure time reading histories, travel books, sociology, economics etc. So a daily poem helps keep up my fiction quotient.

I’m enjoying my poetry diet! Here’s my prescription:

Take one per day, preferably upon waking. If this is not possible then try to take your daily poem before you have read any other material. If you take too many at once, don’t panic*. Put down the book and continue with a single poem-dose** the following day.

*Reading too many poems per day can result in overwhelm but this is temporary and not harmful. 

**If your poem is an epic poem, build up the dose gradually, perhaps ten lines per day. Once tolerance achieved, you may increase the dose to twenty lines or a page, as required.

Side effects may include an increased desire to find the exact right word in your own writing, and a mild inner smugness. Neither is harmful.


Do you have a reading prescription which you would recommend? Let me know in the comments!



*Stephen Fry says you should read a poem as slowly as you possibly can. I agree, but it will probably still be faster than reading a novel.