Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled – The Psychology Behind Blank Page Syndrome

Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled – The Psychology Behind Blank Page Syndrome February 22, 2012

After reviewing the verse of Digital Cuttlefish (poet laureate of the Scientific Blogohedron) and remembering a comment they made, long ago – I began wondering as to what extent is it true that one MUST practice in order to write good poetry.

Good poetry is a passion of mine; I’ve even sent two friends copies of Stephen Fry’s guide to poetry – ‘The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within‘:

I believe poetry is a primal impulse within us all. I believe we are all capable of it and furthermore that a small, often ignored corner of us positively yearns to try it. 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 formless and random…

The study of practice and achievement led me to a psychology paper, which taps into the research I’m helping with – Expert PerformanceIts Structure and Acquisition by K. Anders Ericsson and Neil Charness (1994). Since I’ve also had the suggestion by some science teachers to debunk the work of Gardner and multiple intelligences, it struck me that one can challenge Gardner’s idea that success leads to more deliberate practice, by saying that deliberate practice activities are designed in order to ensure success.

Only careful observation and study of differences in the type and amount of activities associated with the longitudinal emergence of abilities and performance in normal and ‘very talented’ children will allow us to determine the potential and possible limits of explanations based on characteristics acquired through focused and extended activity – Ericsson & Charness, 1994.

Talent versus (heh, verses?) training has been an ongoing debate throughout history – and you can see it in the discipline behind the art of poetry.

Now, I could sneer at research and say there are ‘lies, damned lies and statistics‘. I could point to the long-heralded tradition of the muse and say ‘well, they wouldn’t claim of muses it if they weren’t TRUE, now would they?’

Telegraph – 8th March, 2009Poet Laureate dedicates first book of poetry in 7 years to his muse

Andrew Motion, the Poet laureate, has credited his new muse with inspiring him to complete his first book of poetry for seven years.

I guess before I became a student of psychology and education, I never really thought much of poetry being in the same vein as music or dance – and requiring practice.

Perhaps I’m also thinking too much of the (possible apocryphal) story of Sylvia Plath, emerging from her rooms at Yaddo, reciting ‘In the Manor Garden‘ off the top of her head, ready to launch her first collection, ‘The Colossus‘. Maybe it’s the notion of ‘writer’s block’; unless some sort of ‘divine inspiration’ is bestowed upon someone, you literally can’t write. Could one, via some form of practice, ‘out write’ writer’s block? Just start…. writing? Anything? It’s something that Slau has talked about, on his Sessions with Slau podcast, after all – ‘Blank Page Syndrome’:

“It’s that intimidation you’re feeling before committing that first word to the page or that first brushstroke to a canvas. It’s the fear that before you begin, it’s going to be imperfect…”

I guess it’s both notions – that a true poet is just ‘gifted’ with a poem, and that ‘writer’s block’ prevents writing, which made me doubt the claim ‘practice makes the poem’.

But first I’ll mention author, commentator and satirist Thomas Love Peacock, taken from his work The Four Ages of Poetry –

Poetry is not one of those arts which, like painting, require repetition and multiplication, in order to be diffused among society. There are more good poems already existing than are sufficient to employ that portion of life which any mere reader and recipient of poetical impressions should devote to them and these having been produced in poetical times [i.e. well before the Romantic era – starting in early Greek and Roman times and finishing this ‘Golden Age’ with Milton, Collins and Grey], are far superior in all the characteristics of poetry to the artificial reconstructions of a few morbid ascetics in unpoetical times.

To read the promiscuous rubbish of the present time to the exclusion of the select treasures of the past, is to substitute the worst for the better variety of the same mode of enjoyment.

Heh. Promiscuous. *snorfle*

Yet in reading this, I’m led to reject Peacock’s conclusions (which I once hoped were satirical, but now I have my doubts!) about the poetry of the time that he disdained. Because he’s talking about Shelley, Wordsworth (whom he calls ‘a morbid dreamer‘), Keats, Coleridge… and the likes of ‘bad-boy’ Byron, who dared to brush aside the traditional observation to the muses in Canto Three of‘Don Juan’ –

Hail, Muse! et cetera. — We left Juan sleeping,
Pillow’d upon a fair and happy breast,
And watch’d by eyes that never yet knew weeping,
And loved by a young heart, too deeply blest
To feel the poison through her spirit creeping,
Or know who rested there, a foe to rest,
Had soil’d the current of her sinless years,
And turn’d her pure heart’s purest blood to tears!

Oh, Love! what is it in this world of ours
Which makes it fatal to be loved? Ah, why
With cypress branches hast thou wreathed thy bowers,
And made thy best interpreter a sigh?
As those who dote on odours pluck the flowers,
And place them on their breast — but place to die —
Thus the frail beings we would fondly cherish
Are laid within our bosoms but to perish.

In looking at Byron’s work, I don’t think there’s enough of a case to disdain Byron’s choice of ‘getting to the action’ (or, ahem, the result of the …. previous action) – instead of pompous salutations and obsequiousness to a mythical creature of inspiration. This is beautiful poetry, even if it isn’t Milton or Homer.

To limit like Peacock is to invite stagnation; to take it a step further – turns it into extinction.

No Byron. No Dawe. No Atwood. No Plath or Hughes. My poetry syllabus would be seriously curtailed. I could probably get all the teaching done in one term and have creative writing classes (the few that we get…) on short stories alone. No limerick threads on forum boards, either.

B. F. Skinner compares the process of creating a poem with the process of ‘creating’ a baby – or more accurately, not so much ‘creation’ as as locus – interaction between two genetic histories (in the case of the parents) or between a genetic and an environmental history (in the case of the poet). As said by Guy Claxton, of the “Intuition and the Artist” seminar (The lecture “On Having a Poem” file can be found here):

“…[T]here’s a wonderful article called ‘On Having a Poem’, not on writing a poem, not on producing a poem, not on choreographing a poem but on having a poem, like having a baby. The development of that image, like it comes in you, it grows in you, it germinates, it’s part of you but you don’t make it, you don’t craft it. You don’t manufacture it. And what delights me about that article is that it’s written by someone called B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist. It’s a great little article.”

Perhaps the subconscious mind ‘seeding’ the poem, results in it coming ‘automatically’ to a poet, like the Plath story I related – it would be wrong of me to ignore the reams of poetic and artistic work that Plath produced for much of her life; I think her first published work was at the age of 10?

Maybe my focus on the ‘what the poem is about’ ignores the ‘how’ at times. I discovered (by poking about) back in my days of Literature classes, that the set text ‘The Norton Anthology Of English Literature‘ includes an appendix called ‘Poems In Progress‘, which features the following in its introduction:

In all ages, some poets have claimed that their poems were not willed but were inspired, whether by a muse, by divine inspiration, or by sudden emergence from the author’s subconscious mind. But as the poet Richard Aldington has remarked ‘genius is not enough; one must also work.’ The working manuscripts of the greatest writers show that, however involuntary the origin of a poem, vision was usually followed by laborious revision before the work achieved the seeming inevitability of its final form….

It goes on to point out the inclusion in this volume (and in the first volume) the examples of revision from poets Blake, Byron, Shelley and Keats – apparently Yeat’s After Long Silence “began as a prose sketch that gradually and laboriously was reshaped into a metric and stanzaic form”:

In all these examples we look on as poets, no matter how rapidly they achieve a result they are willing to let stand, carry on their inevitably tentative efforts to meet the multiple requirements of meaning, syntax, meter, sound pattern and the constraints imposed by a chosen stanza. And because these are all very good poets, the seeming conflict between the necessities of significance and form results not in the distortion but in the perfecting of the poetic statement.

The ‘works in progress’ are fascinating and I can’t really reproduce them here accurately… Shelley has the first two stanzas of O World, O Life, O Time mapped out like this:

Na na, na na ná na
Nã nã na na na – nã nã
Nã nã nã n- n-
Na na nã nã nâ – na

And here I was thinking I was the only one who absent-mindedly tapped the table in order to get my timing right! In passing, I found it amusing to see how much Keats worried about how best to illustrate a woman getting her bodice removed by her Saint Agnes’ Eve lover… practically “fumbling with the laces himself”…

As Stephen Fry wrote in The Ode Less Travelled:

…the point remains: it isn’t a burden to learn the difference between acid and alkaline soil or understand how f-stops and exposure times affect your photograph. There’s no drudgery or humiliation in discovering how to knit, purl and cast off, snowplough your skis, deglaze a pan, carve a dovetail or tot up your bridge hand according to Acol. Only an embarrassed adolescent or deranged coward thinks jargon and reserved languages are pretentious and that detail and structure are boring.

…Talent without technique is like an engine without a steering wheel, gears or brakes. It doesn’t matter how thoroughbred and powerful the V12 under the bonnet if it can’t be steered and kept under control. …Do athletes boast of their hand-eye coordination, grace and natural sense of balance? No, they talk of how hard they trained, the sacrifices they made, the effort they put in.

I think research demonstrates how some Expert Performances were indeed gained from Structure and Acquisition. And I didn’t even have to go much further than the Romantic era poetry.

Poor proud Thomas Love Peacock; I wonder how many people still read his work on poetry. Stephen Fry, on the other hand, released t-shirts based on how many follow his Twitter account…

In closing – this is by a fellow Australian – and a local too – Matt Rogers is a freelance graphics artist and web developer based in Perth, Western Australia.

“Do they bubble and froth slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? They are too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. They are no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.”


Ericsson, K., & Charness, N. (1994). Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist, 49 (8), 725-747.

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