There’s a wide range of scary poems, beginning with the ones that register the pleasure of being a little scared, like Dickinson’s responding to “a narrow fellow in the grass…with “a tighter Breathing/ And zero at the bone.” The ferocity of anger can be both funny and frightening, as it is in Margaret Atwood’s four-line poem:
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
And in the last stanza of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”:
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Her hallucinatory poem “The Bee Meeting” gives me nightmares. If you think Louise Gluck’s “Gretel in Darkness” is terrifying, take a look at “All Hallows.” Many of Frost’s poems disturb the deepest levels, like “Design” and “Out, Out–,” for example. In the first one, Frost pushes the implications of the argument from design for the existence of god to its logical conclusion: Do you really want to believe in a god who pays attention to every detail of life and death? When I first read “Out, Out–” I went back again and again, hoping I was wrong about what happens–but I wasn’t. There’s something far more deeply frightening to me about seeing through the words to the terrifying events beyond them than seeing the events directly. It’s the delayed realization, the double take, the oh no. Robert Morgan’s poem “The Mountain Bride” loops back to Dickinson’s narrow fellow in a terrifying scene.
So what are some of your favorite frightening poems? Post the poems or the links.
A poem doesn’t really begin for me until I hear its music in a voice and a line. There might be a cloud of images, thoughts, and feelings, but it doesn’t begin to live as a poem until I hear that. I just came across a passage from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s moving memoir, Hope Against Hope that describes this moment for her husband, the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam: “He would sigh with relief…when the first words in a line or stanza came to him….The work of a poet has probably something in common with that of a composer, and the appearance of words is the crucial factor that distinguishes it from musical composition….(M. never talked of ‘writing’ verse, only of ‘composing’ it.)”
She describes the process in vivid detail: “The whole process of composition is one of straining to catch and record something compounded of harmony and sense as it is relayed from an unknown source and gradually forms itself into words. The last stage of the work consists in ridding the poem of all the words foreign to the harmonious whole which existed before the poem arose. Such words slip in by chance, being used to fill gaps during the emergence of the whole. They become lodged in the body of the poem, and removing them is hard work. This final stage is a painful process of listening in to oneself in a search for the objective and absolutely precise unity called a ‘poem’….[O]nly when the last foreign bodies have been driven out by the right word is there an end to that listening.”
Is this your sense of what it’s like to work on a poem? Do you think it still applies in the 21st century? (I sometimes teach a class called “The Lost Art of Listening.”)
No, it’s not fear of cities. It means fear of poetry, and I didn’t know the term until yesterday. Here metro- refers to meter, but the phobia certainly extends to free verse as well.
A poet friend had asked why I thought so many people are afraid of poetry, and a whole range of reasons occurred to me. People are afraid that a poem is full of “hidden meanings” they can’t see, written in a code they can’t crack. Some of it is cultural—there’s a reflexive aversion, in our deeply anti-intellectual country, to anything related to the arts and sciences, to any endeavor that requires study. I touched on this aversion, and some examples of how poets respond to it, in the July 14th posting “An Embarrassment of Poets,” but I’d like to focus on it directly here.
One technique for treating phobias is “flooding,” bombarding the person with exactly whatever it is that triggers the phobia. I don’t see this working with fear of spiders, but I like the idea of flooding someone with poems read aloud. Getting over fear of poetry begins with letting it in, listening to the music. I sometimes play poetry in Swedish or Greek or Polish in class, exactly so students can’t be distracted by the words. Then I might choose a poem in English and go around the room having each student read it aloud, listening to each reading deepen and unfold the meanings.
I think one reason people are stymied by poetry is that it looks as if it’s made of the same language we speak and write every day. When they can’t read it the way they would a newspaper or a novel, they feel defeated and turn away. At that point I would quote W. C. Williams, “a poem is a thing made of words” (and music). A poet isn’t saying something but making something to be listened to, walked around, looked at. A poem is an Alexander Calder mobile made of words and music. I’m reminded of a book by John Ciardi I read long ago—not What does a Poem Mean, but How does a Poem Mean.
I think metrophobia is learned, not inherent. You and I don’t suffer from it—why not? What are your thoughts about causes and treatments?