East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Poetry for real men


In the end the instigators were, of all people, Robert E. Howard and Stephen Fry, quite an odd couple if you think about it. And weird things might come out of all this. But I am getting ahead of myself, so let me give you a bit of background here.

For the best part of my life I only owned three books of poetry: a selection of verses by John Donne, a collection of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe and one of haiku by Matsuo Basho. And this was it. My generation was taught a lot of poetry in school – but that amounted basically to learning verses by heart and then writing essays about what the poet meant by writing what he wrote (and not, strangely enough, the way he wrote it). It is reasonable to say that we learned more about metrics and rhythm and all that from the radio, by listening to rock’n’roll.

Further diffidence about this whole poetry thing was caused by those few individuals we met – usually starting in high school – that did write poetry, could boast some minor local award, and usually had a collection printed at their own expenses.
Insufferable limp-wristed bores to a man, pompous and self-celebrating, strutting around like peacocks with their thin, privately-printed pamphlets and acting like they were Virgil and Petrarch and Bill Shakespeare rolled into one.

But I had another source of verses, and that was, when I was more or less fifteen, the discovery of Robert E. Howard – that was a great purveyor of muscular adventure, sure, but that also wrote poetry. There was nothing limp-wristed about Howard, he was not pompous nor self-celebratory, and neither strutted about or tried to justify the fact that, yeah, he had written poems, so what?
This discovery suggested there was more to explore on the subject, but I still found school horribly inadequate: just as they never taught us how a novel works, they never taught us about the machinery of poetry.
And of course, in those pre-Internet days, Howard’s poetry was hard to find hereabouts.

Later in the university years my collection of poetry grew, later, to include more Japanese and Chinese verses – if not for any other reason because there was a toolbox there, a set of rules and mechanics you could use to assemble a haiku or a Taoist poem. Later came others – and here the music connection became explicit, as my short shelf acquired poetry books by Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega. And finally some Tennyson, some Swinburne, a good selection of Elizabethans. I read mostly poetry in English.
And then, yes, Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith – because as I learned, Weird tales (but also Oriental Stories) published verses, too.

The subject of Howard’s poetry – that can be powerful but is never rough, and shows in his more mature verses both ear and discipline – came up on REH’s birthday, when discussing Howard with some of his local fans it turned out that his verses are not part of the “Howardian Curriculum” hereabouts. Italian fans give a wide berth to Howard’s poems, and prefer to concentrate on Conan’s “violence and sex and unashamed foul language”, on Red Sonja’s cleavage, and on how Solomon Kane is a real kick-ass sword-fighter, you wussies.

On Howard’s birthday I discussed all this, rather dishearteningly, with a friend – laying the blame for the lack of interest in Howard’s poetry not much on the otherwise undeniable and often embarrassing adolescent machismo of the fans, but rather on the inadequate education provided by schools. Poetry is obscure, and the younger readers’ brains shut down as soon as they see the indented lines of a poem.

The result of that discussion was a suggestion. “You want to learn more about the machinery of poetry, you should check out Stephen Fry’s The ode less travelled,” my friend said. And considering I’m willing to read anything by Stephen Fry down to his shopping lists, I checked the book out (together with Fry’s follow-up to Mythos), using the last bits of a battered and partly charred Amazon gift card.

The ode less travelled is a book about poetry, and a crash course in getting it – ideally the reader is given all the know-how necessary to try their hand at actually writing poetry. The book also includes a very interesting introduction about the idea of writing for our own pleasure and not to inflict our work on others – something all those out there that “write for themselves” but then publish the most shameless drivel should read and learn by heart.

Fry’s style of writing is what has made him so popular as both a storyteller and an essayist and a speaker – it’s easy to hear his voice as we read the passages, and his explanations and examples are absolutely spot on. The book is a delight, and it reads like a breeze, and is highly recommended – there is also an audiobook version, narrated by the author, but this being an instructional book, I guess the printed version is preferable.

And no, I will not be writing poetry any time soon – or should I decide to try my hand, I will not inflict my experiments on the unwary. I’d rather study the subject to strengthen my prose writing.

On the other hand, right now I’m extremely bored with the simplistic, knuckles-dragging-on-the-ground school of “fantasy of hard knocks” that’s all the rage in my country, and I still think Grimdark (with a few exceptions) a sub-genre for sociopaths. And I’ve been recently defrocked as a fan of the fantastic because I’m too old.
Sometimes writing gets really hard, these days, and I need a new hobby.
Who knows where my current frustration might push me?

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Poetry for real men

  1. Poetry frustrates me. I used to love it. Milton was my favourite. I wrote HEAPS of really bad poetry when I was young. But, as I grew up, I found my attention shifted to prose, and realised I could say so much more in story format. Plus, I was better at writing stories than poetry. And as I turned away from WRITING poetry, so I also turned away from enjoying poetry.

    That said, a lot of my writing today is still influenced by poetry or to be more exact, music. My Cohen’s imagery frequently inspires my writing. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a massive piece of inspiration for my current book, and of course, Poe’s wordsmithery touches a lot of my writing too.

    So yeah, I love, hate poetry! And every once in a while, I have to write a piece just to prove how much I suck at writing it.


    • I really never wrote poetry in my life. Like, never.
      But I like the disciplined approach to rhythm it requires, and the different way it forces us to look at words.
      And the Stephen Fry book is fun.
      I will never write poetry, but I am learning new things, and that’s always a good thing.

      Liked by 1 person

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