October 1, 2016

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?



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  • Reply eileen cleary October 2, 2016 at 6:18 am

    There is a scene in Dead Poet’s Society in which the teacher character (named Richard Keating) has each of the boys teach one another a new way to walk. The boys do this willingly, because they are teaching their own perceptions of a new way to walk. I think people fear poetry at first because they are not allowed to have their own relationship with it. The expression “find yourself in a book” is used for fiction or even biography, works that are mostly longer than poems studied in school. It is easier in a short piece of work for a teacher to impose meaning onto it and move on, as if the poem text had already been read and studied. “Mending Wall”–New England poem about neighbors, walls and what to leave in or out. Check. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”–Live long and strong. Check. “We Real Cool”-stay in school. Check. But what if the class slows down and has a conversation with the text? What if the class develops scientific inquiry around the poems? What if they study the diverse ways of the world of these poems?

    Imagine if “We Real Cool” is allowed to become what it is for any reader, a lightning rod for exploration of mortality, music, pride. A song about having one’s own language. In a classroom where a poem has a “we” in it 8 times or so, couldn’t the “we” of the class begin to feel a “we” way about their own classroom , group, society, families, selves?

    It is in the slowing down and conversing with anything or person, the gradual getting to know, where meaningful and lasting relationships are born. I think this holds true for poetry.

    • Reply David Hurst October 2, 2016 at 12:06 pm

      This was a great post! Those last two lines are perfect!

      • Reply sharonbryanpoet October 2, 2016 at 12:27 pm

        Dave, I love what you have to say. Words were my passion and escape from as early as I can remember. I had support for it because everyone in my family read a lot, from magazines to books. But I think the urge to put feelings into words is there in everyone, waiting to be tapped into by the right teacher–like you.

  • Reply David Hurst October 2, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Many of my students have fears and difficulties I’ve never had. Not just with poetry, but with the most mundane of writing exercises or reading. I cannot remember a time when I did not read like a half-starved animal in a dumpster. I was never afraid of it, I just never could get enough. I don’t even remember a time before poetry, as it was read to me before I could read. But my students have not lived my life.

    Imagining my students’ fears of language has been my biggest challenge as a professor of composition and literature. It doesn’t seem the same to me as a fear of spiders or of heights, fears I don’t need to imagine. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe the same fascination that lures me to vertigo, from which I shudder away, is at root the same scary yearning of the fear of poetry: I will lose myself if I embrace it. Of course it is not rational, but many of my students have little familiarity with language, or with its power. They know it can be wielded to provoke responses in others, but I think they only subconsciously sense that it provokes and shapes the wielder as well. Perhaps it is this they fear, losing themselves in forces that seem beyond their control.

    And yet so many write poems–little ones, poems of love and loss, intensely personal and almost anti-literary. When I would read at a local high school, I would ask them what they wrote and if you draw it out and are patient enough, they share the same sort of writing I wrote when I was them. I so wish this was more nourished in our society. So many children are desperate to be read and to be listened to, to be mentored into uses of language. Perhaps fewer would fear it.

    When I was eight or nine, I fell in love with the dictionary. I read it, cover to cover, over and over. It had words that lead to other words that lead to still more words–nuances of meaning. And of course it had scandalous words! My addiction started with an old red school dictionary, but now I’m into the hard stuff and anything abridged will not do for me. I can spend hours flipping randomly through the pages; it is for me as cat videos have become for the online generation. I think I can safely say that none of my students have ever felt that attachment to words. I have them read that chapter in the Autobiography of Malcolm X in which he teaches himself the dictionary, or the essay by Sherman Alexie, “Superman Me,” in which he learns to read by figuring out comic book thought balloons. I don’t know how else to connect them to my love of words.

    Except I might discuss this with them. Metrophobia: what are the symptoms? How might it be treated? Is it an STD? I might even have them look up metrophilia in a medical dictionary for more scandalous poetic implications.

  • Reply martha zweig October 2, 2016 at 6:48 pm

    Growing up in the 1940’s-50’s, I hated poetry because of how it was taught– as a compendium of (parental) wisdom & morality, nutshells of DWM condescension & gentility. Tennyson! — I hated Tennyson so much that I took a Tennyson course in grad school, which didn’t help. What did help was my discovery of the subversive in Frost. And– musical noises, which had been hanging around underappreciated in my mind from my father’s enjoyment of Ogden Nash.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet October 3, 2016 at 2:35 pm

      What you said about the Tennyson class made me laugh. I found Frost very early, and the darkness and terror and subversion spoke to me immediately–I was lucky that way. Yeah, “wisdom and morality.” Sounds medicinal.

  • Reply Lynne Bush October 3, 2016 at 10:56 am

    Sharon: Thank you for this. I will speak from my school experience, which was that there seemed to be a secret–and single–meaning to a poem I was supposed to “get” and if my reading differed, I was not reading it “right.” There needs to be space to explore possible readings and misreadings, to gently enter the pool of analysis at the shallow end, dipping a toe in and then retreating to safety for a while until students are willing to plunge ( and sometimes flail) in the deeps. That requires a patient and non-judgmental guide–and time.

    The best poetry textbook cover I ever saw showed a rock climber rappelling down a steep cliff. I was electrified. Poetry was something alive, dangerous, that I could engage with, not something safely caged between covers. LOVED IT.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet October 3, 2016 at 2:32 pm

      Ah, yes, that sense of a “right” way to read a poem. The rock climber rappelling sounds like a perfect antidote. Yes, poetry is dangerous. And funny and playful and ambiguous and always in motion. This is so at the heart of what goes wrong for people early on.

  • Reply Jonathan Greenfield October 4, 2016 at 5:08 am

    I’m thinking that a component of metrophobia stems, from fear of life (that stems from fear of its opposite). Another way, perhaps, of saying what David Hurst said above “… losing themselves in forces that seem beyond their control.” It is difficult to develop (or to allow to function if the capacity is pre-existing) the elasticity required to appreciate the meaning and sensuality of poetry because it opens up possibilities of encountering the unknown and the possibility that one is alone and death is final … like Satre’s ‘coming face to face with one’s facticity.’ Better, less anxiety provoking, to float ignorantly along with the preacher’s exhortations or the tyrant’s formulaic externalizations.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet October 4, 2016 at 10:08 am

      I totally agree that the force of poetry is frightening–it upends, subverts, reveals what we’re not ready to see yet. So getting beyond the first layer of aversion to something unfamiliar, really encountering the power of poetry, can be terrifying. It operates–surgically–on the reader, with some distractions but no anesthetic. It rearranges us in profound and unpredictable ways. It takes the tops of our heads off. Some of us find it bracing to face into that storm, consoling even. Some of us hear Rilke’s challenge every day: “You must change your life.” We read and write poetry to do just that.

  • Reply Daneen Wardrop October 8, 2016 at 5:27 pm

    Muriel Rukeyser in The Life of Poetry writes, “The fear of poetry is profound . . . . on the threshold of adolescence the walls are built . . . Then, for the first time, you wonder, ‘What should I be feeling?’ instead of the true, ‘What do I feel?'” Poetry keeps bringing how we feel to the forefront with how we think.

    Sharon, I love your blog, and love reading everyone’s responses.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet October 8, 2016 at 5:42 pm

      Daneen, thank you for this! I didn’t remember it at all, and it’s perfect. She puts it beautifully, and so do you. And of course this is at the heart is why it’s truly scary, beyond all the superficial layers: when you say something false in a poem, the poem spits it out. Then you’re left to face what you really think and really feel.

      • Reply martha zweig October 8, 2016 at 6:25 pm

        Something I love/hate about aesthetic distance in all the arts: you (the artist) can tell your/the truth safely– well, safely up-to-a-point, until you get tortured or shot. Mostly in the world you can’t tell your/the truth at all. It’s rude, embarrassing, rolls others’ eyes, doesn’t-fit-in… But persons paying attention to an item of art pretty much agree beforehand to suspend the constraints of social life along with disbelief. They agree that the “frame” around this thing (and, perhaps, the absence from the room of its creator) tames the utterance itself. Or will be taken to do so. For now.

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