Learning Poetry: Exercise 5

This is the fifth entry in a series documenting my attempts at exercises in Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within. Since exercise one in the book did not require a post and because I did not really think about it, all my posts are one off, so this post corresponds to exercise six in the book1. For previous exercises, see my earlier posts:

The exercise

  1. Write some anapaestic2 hexameters3 describing how to get to your house
  2. And some dactylic4 pentameter5 on the subject of cows. For fun these should be in the classical manner: four dactyls and a spondee6, with the spondee as spondaic as English will allow7.

The results

From the road take a right by the charlatans office and stop at the sign,
Then straight on by the taxi and seventies house with the hedgerows in line.
You might find that we don't have a car in the drive but we're still there at home.
Try the doorbell and see if we answer, if not don't despair, try the phone.

Fenced in by the powered electrified wires that we stretched out
Far across pastures they stand and they chew upon green grass
Neighbours confused why the cows are all standing in straight lines.
Cattle unsure of the pain they receive if they touch it.

  1. If you want to follow along, you can get your own copy of the book from most book retailers, such as Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor 

  2. The anapaestic meter is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, as in: ti-ti-tum 

  3. A line of verse containing six metrical feet 

  4. The dactylic meter is one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, as in: tum-ti-ti 

  5. A line of verse containing five metrical feet 

  6. two stressed syllables, as in tumtum 

  7. Unlike French, where each syllable is usually supposed to get equal stress, English does not tend to have words with two stressed syllables side-by-side – this is why English speakers often incorrectly add emphasis when speaking French 

Learning Poetry: Exercise 4

It has been over a year since I last ventured into the world of poetry on this blog as I slowly make my way through The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. In each entry, I have posted my attempts at the exercises in the book and today, we'll look at Exercise 4 (Exercise 5 in the book).

If you are interested in the previous posts in this series, please check them out below:

I am not reiterating the content of the book here, merely the exercise, my attempt at it, and perhaps some notes. You may want to get your own copy of the book to follow along in more detail1.

The Exercise

Write your own verse of shorter measure. Give yourself forty-five minutes.

  • Two quatrains2 of standard, eight-syllable iambic pentameter.

  • Two quatrains of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter.

  • Two quatrains of trochaic tetrameter: one in 'pure troche' and one with docked weak endings in the second and fourth lines

 The Result

This morning we are flying home-
Detroit awaits our restless feet.
The cats await our fuss and food,
Perhaps a tasty little treat.

Some sleep would also be quite nice
to rest my weary head and dream.
An hour or two, that would suffice
between the sheets, the sandman's seam.

Tomorrow must I work all day?
I hope that I must not.
If I could only have my way
I'd dream away the lot.

Alas, I have to go to work
and concentrate on code.
Keep focused, calm, not go berserk
Till I can hit the road.

Taking flight; Atlanta's waiting,
Soon we will be landing safely,
Stepping off the plane and skating
Off to catch the next one, waiting.

Home awaits me bed and bathroom,
Nothing could mean more right now.
First, we have to drive the vroom vroom,
If I can remember how.

The Score

Unlike previous exercises, there is no scoring. However, I think I did well at this exercise. The verses seem less forced and meet the requirements laid out in the instructions.

As implied in the words, I wrote these verses while journeying back to Michigan from a vacation somewhere. I cannot recall the exact trip at all, but I think the words conjure up the hope and fatigue of travelling. What do you think? Have you tried this exercise? Post your attempts in the comments, if you'd like.

  1. Try Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor 

  2. a stanza of four lines, especially one having alternate rhymes 

How I got started with computers

I, like many others, enjoy the ramblings of Scott Hanselman. Recently, Scott posted a blog on how he got started in computers and programming and I thought I'd share my own story of getting started.


It all began in the distant past (don't worry, the story isn't as long as it sounds) when I was at primary school (elementary school for those Americans reading). We were very fortunate in the UK during the 80s; the BBC was working hard to promote computer literacy. This culminated in a number of things, most notable (at least for this story) were the BBC Domesday Project and the BBC Micro.

The Domesday Project was a partnership between the BBC, Acorn Computers and various others to mark the 900th anniversary of the original Domesday Book, an 11th century census of England. It resulted in our school library having a laserdisc that gave us an unprecedented interactive view of the country.

The BBC Micro was the computing platform that formed a part of the Domesday Project and my formative programming experience thanks to the BBC's efforts to get one in every primary school in the UK.

A Domesday system at the Vintage Computer Festival 2010, Bletchley, UK
A Domesday system at the Vintage Computer Festival 2010, Bletchley, UK

We have lift-off!

It was a year or so after the Domesday Project had visited our school library. A BBC Micro sat conspicuously in my classroom day after day. I don't remember exactly how it started, but at some point I went from playing educational games on it to writing small programs in BASIC. I suspect it had a lot to do with a very inspirational teacher I had (Mr. Garbutt, I believe). He read fascinating books to us, he played guitar to us, he had us writing and remembering poetry and eventually, he had me writing software.

It was towards the end of my final year, shortly before my leap to high school, when I created my most elaborate program yet. It was a picture of a space shuttle complete with scaffold and a car with stickman owner for scale. It even had NASA written down the side (for someone who still struggled with some geometry at age 10, I am impressed with myself for rotating those letters). The program itself was more a feat of effort than it was of programming ingenuity; it was several hundred lines of MOVE and DRAW commands. However, that effort earned me a £10 book token and a printout of the drawing and the code used to create it. The printout has since been lost, but the book I purchased has journeyed with me and sits in my bookcase at home, inside it is taped the card that had contained the prize.

The book I purchased with my prize
The book I purchased with my prize
Inscription that accompanied my book token
Inscription that accompanied my book token

The Theory of Relativity

If it were not for the support and sacrifices of my family, that may well have been that. I would have left primary school and perhaps programming, behind. However, my parents recognized my interest and bought a home computer. It was a Tatung Einstein, a little known microcomputer and it was perfect for me to while away hours at home gaming and coding (now I come to think of it, this may be how I got my start with videogames too).

I wrote a whole host of programs for my Einstein including electronic versions of "choose your own adventure" books, an electronic Beatles album and a timetable manager for me and my classmates to use for who knows what. I even remember using the Einstein for our stall at a school business fair (I seem to recall it was some sort of murder mystery thing though I don't remember for sure).

Tatung Einstein and monitor
Tatung Einstein and monitor

Friend and Family

As my Tatung Einstein started to suffer from technical problems I set my sights on something grander; a Commodore Amiga 500. My parents sold our piano to afford this computer, much to the chagrin of my sister (and probably my piano teacher, although I'd already found my lack of talent by then). Meanwhile, at school I gained access to a 286 PC and an Apple Macintosh. The former was part of my science work and often included some lunchtime visits to Sid Meier's Civilisation with a very supportive science teacher, Dr. Stec; the latter helped me to write legible schoolwork for various classes (thanks, Mr. Simpson), assist in the publication of the school newspaper and learn about e-mail for the first time.

An Amiga 500 computer system, with 1084S RGB monitor and second A1010 floppy disk drive
An Amiga 500 computer system, with 1084S RGB monitor and second A1010 floppy disk drive (© Bill Bertram 2006)

And The Rest Is History

By the time I finished high school, my career aspirations were set and I headed off to get a degree in Computer Systems Engineering leading to my job as a software engineer. Along the way, I've had the opportunity to work with some amazing people on some great projects in some diverse circumstances and I owe it all to the opportunities I was given by the BBC, my schools, my teachers and my family. I will always be grateful for their support and the sacrifices that were made so that I could follow my ambitions.

Learning Poetry: Exercise 2

This is the second part in a series of posts documenting my efforts learning more about prosody:

In the last post, I explained how I was learning to be a better poet. I also included my attempts from the first exercise in Stephen Fry's book, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. Now it is time for the fruits of the second exercise. I would love to hear your thoughts on my attempts – what works, what does not, where you think I've gone wrong. Perhaps you might get a copy of the book and have a go yourself. If you do, I'd really like to see your results.

The Exercise

Write five pairs of blank iambic pentameter in which the first line of each pair is end-stopped1 and there are no caesuras2, then write five pairs of blank iambic pentameter with the same meaning, but using enjambment3 and at least two caesuras.

The topics for each of the five pairs are:

  1. Precisely what you see outside your window.
  2. Precisely what you'd like to eat, right this minute.
  3. Precisely what you last remember dreaming about.
  4. Precisely what uncompleted chores are niggling at you.
  5. Precisely what you hate about your body.

The Results


  1. The blur of trees is racing out of sight,
    As speedily the train ploughs down the line.

  2. A pack of tasty chips from in my bag.
    The ones I bought last night inside the store.

  3. A crazed outlandish woman blocked my path,
    Demanding love and drinks from all my friends.

  4. I really must repair the door and step,
    And take the time to see the naked earth.

  5. My gut has grown from laziness and food,
    It hurts to walk upon my foot as well.

Using enjambment and caesuras

  1. The trees, in blurs of green that race beside
    the train, demark the path we travel on.

  2. Some chips, perhaps a drink of something, I bought
    selections from the store last night. Thank God.

  3. So drunk, the girl accosted me, she asked
    if anyone would like a kiss. We ran.

  4. The earth is bare, it waits for seeds, we might
    sew grass or herbs. And still the door needs work.

  5. From food, my gut has grown to fill the space
    beyond my pants. Yet still my foot, it aches.

  1. A single thought that finished with the line. 

  2. Pauses, which break up the flow. 

  3. Where the meaning runs on from one line to the next. 

Learning Poetry: Exercise 1

This is the first part in a series of posts documenting my efforts learning more about prosody:

If you've been following my blog at all, you may have noticed that I have posted a poem or two. These attempts at prosody are remnants of songwriting attempts – lyrics that never gained a tune. Though I enjoy writing lyrics and, on the odd occasion pretending they're real poems, I've never taken the time to learn about the art of poetry. Because of this, much of what I write lacks the structure and care that would indicate or more learned authorship and I expect to some I may just come across as nothing but a poetaster1.

With that in mind, a couple of years ago I bought a book by Stephen Fry while I was on vacation in San Francisco. It's called The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within. Allowing for the appropriate length of procrastination, I started reading it this weekend on my trip to Chicago for St.Patrick's Day and I've really been enjoying it. Each concept is introduced with examples and analysis before the reader is given an opportunity to put their newly acquired knowledge to work in simple exercises (Fry's view is that we're each capable of poetry if we only try).

I won't recreate the book here, it would be a poor facsimile, but I would like to present my attempts from each exercise. Whatever you think of my poetic prowess (or lack thereof), I hope it will be fun to follow along as I learn and improve my prosody. I'll begin with a brief explanation of the exercise and then provide my attempts2. As I don't intend to explain the terms in detail, you may want a copy of the book or a dictionary in order to understand the exercise.

The Exercise

Write 20 lines of blank3 verse in iambic pentameter4.

The Results

When Mrs. Wilson claimed she was a bitch,
Miss Chrissy said it was not really true.

Tonight, I slept inside an apple core.

The night is young and eager for some fun,
but what to do, I'm bored and losing time.

This exercise is rather dull for me.

The driver stopped to get another fare.

His face was low, without a look of love,
yet some might say he's clearly lost in thought.

I'm learning all about iambic lines.

My friends will all be quite impressed with this,
I know a term or two about the moon.

It burns to think she left me all alone.
Where will I find a girl as bright as her?

Another dog falls foul of Sergeant Crow.
The pound is where he locks them all away.

Tomorrow takes a darker turn for me.
The crows come home to roost and bury me.

A line or two of prosody to write.

I stole a pack of mints from Mrs. Brown.

  1. A word I learned from my new poetry professor, Stephen Fry. It means 'bad poet'. 

  2. Each exercise is actually introduced with some rather detailed instructions in the book that provide additional guidance and challenges than the summary I will provide. 

  3. Non-rhyming 

  4. Verse with the metre 'ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum', also known as the Heroic Line.