Poetry phobia, or ‘metrophobia' as it is technically referred to, is a morbid fear of poetry. The typical sufferer experiences mild to acute discomfort when confronted with poetic material (e.g. poetry on the page, discussions about poetry, readings and ‘slams', writing exercises).
This discomfort normally takes the form of ‘free-floating' anxiety, i.e. anxiety that is not perceived as stemming from its actual cause. So the metrophobic's heart rate will increase and their palms will moisten; they may feel breathless, nauseous, dizzy. This is the autonomic fight/flight response that accompanies all anxiety - and indeed all phobic reactions. In severe cases a full-blown panic attack may ensue. But this is rare, as the typical metrophobic has usually employed some kind of countermeasure long before such a catastrophic reaction can occur.
The repertoire of countermeasures include the following five main forms:
Avoidance: where the metrophobic person simply turns the page, pushes the book away, changes the subject, leaves the room. This behaviour may be accompanied by the simple cognition, ‘I don't like poetry'.
Intellectualisation: where the metrophobic engages in defining poetry so as to ‘put it in a box', much as a bomb disposal operative might place an explosive device in a bomb-proof container and cordon off the immediate area. So poetry might be criticised as being elitist, whimsical, wilfully obscure - which then justifies the metrophobic's rejection of the art form.
Aggression: a reaction that either occurs independently as a knee-jerk comment, such as ‘poetry is stupid', or (in more educated sufferers) as a sequela to the intellectualisation defence described above. In this case, the intellectualisation vindicates the aggressive reaction, mere prejudice being less acceptable to more educated sufferers.
Ridicule: where the metrophobic person responds with belittling jokes and/or snorts of amused derision. This response has been characterised by former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion as the ‘clog dancing' defence, where poetry is accorded the same dismissive reaction as a widely-ridiculed traditional UK folk dance.
Disapproval: where poetry (and poets) are seen as suspect in some way, as morally corrupt, effete, mentally unstable, left-wing, or otherwise threatening to the status quo. In classical times, Spartans are said to have banned certain types of poetry because they believed it promoted homosexual and licentious behaviour. More recently there has been right-wing consternation over Michelle Obama's invitation to poets to perform at the White House.
Poetry was originally developed as an oral art form, along with singing and storytelling. As with music, a poem's complexities and satisfactions are not readily accessible unless it is read aloud or subvocalised (i.e. read to oneself, either under the breath, or silently as an oral imaging exercise). US folk singer Josephine Foster puts it like this: ‘Just passively reading poems seems incomplete, like reading a score of music without playing it.' WN Herbert, Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, agrees. ‘People have difficulty with poetry because they believe there is a kernel of meaning hidden in the structure. But the meaning of a poem is not separate from the structure. It's caught up in its music, choice of rhyme, length of line, rhythm.'
Herbert maintains that one reason people find poetry difficult is because of the way they read. ‘We are taught to read prose in order to extract meaning. And we are taught to read silently,' he says. (See HOW TO READ A POEM, below, for an alternative method, designed by Herbert to combat metrophobia.)
Indeed, as children become more adept at reading, they switch from subvocalisation to the faster technique of dividing the text into ‘chunks' which are read visually, bypassing the subvocal stage. This means that unless someone has learnt how to read a poem, they will read it just as they would a piece of prose: quickly, silently, visually, interrogating it for meaning. As a result many people are likely to find many poems opaque, ambiguous, confusing or obscure.
This is the root cause of metrophobia. When someone is unable immediately to discern ‘the meaning' of a poem, they feel stupid and humiliated. It's these feelings of humiliation that are at the root of the free-floating anxiety mentioned earlier.
Recent research suggests that metrophobia develops gradually over time, being almost entirely absent in young children, who enjoy nursery rhymes and the poems they encounter in children's books.
The condition starts to take hold as schooling progresses until alienation and even outright hostility is being expressed by a significant proportion of teenagers at GCSE level. In fact one major survey of 86 primary and secondary schools (Poetry in Schools, OFSTED, 2007) concluded that there was a direct correlation between the age of the child and ‘the more often and strongly they viewed poetry as an elitist art form'. This same report found that secondary school pupils found poetry teaching was ‘quite boring, confusing, demotivating, un-contextualised, irrelevant and a waste of time'. It concluded that ‘provision for poetry was ... weaker than the other aspects of English inspected, suggesting that poetry was underdeveloped in many schools surveyed'.
This ‘underdevelopment' was attributed to three main factors: lessons which focussed on technical aspects of poetry; teachers' lack of knowledge of the art form, which led to poor-quality marking of assignments and a small range of ‘lightweight' and unchallenging poems being studied; and - last but by no means least - the imposition of SATs testing, which focuses on literacy targets, leaving little time for an art form which is not assessed.
‘Poetry drops out of lessons, because it's never assessed,' says Caroline Murphy, who is researching the teaching of poetry for a PhD at Northumbria University. ‘Teachers have become technicians in language acquisition and the wider view of literature as an art form has virtually disappeared.' It would appear that the English curriculum is promoting metrophobia in teachers and their pupils.
A study of 1,200 primary teachers (Teachers as Readers, UK Literacy Association, 2010) found that although 64 per cent could name at least six ‘good' children's authors, when asked to name children's poets, only 10 per cent could name six - 22 per cent could name none at all. The same study discovered that only 27 per cent introduced poetry to their pupils as part of an holistic introduction to the written word as a creative and factual resource. For 22 per cent poetry was used solely as a way of achieving literacy goals.
Murphy believes that poor teaching of poetry is an inevitable result of the ‘back-to-basics' education reforms introduced by the Conservative government, which continued under New Labour when the National Literacy Strategy was brought in. Poetry was seen either as a distraction from literacy goals or as a mere adjunct to be used as ‘a linguistic training ground'.
But recent research indicates that the appreciation of poetry and other literary arts may be crucial in achieving those goals. When assessed in 2008, it was found that though improvements had been made in 11-year-old children's reading competence - with 87 per cent achieving a Level 4 standard - writing competence had improved hardly at all, with only 68 per cent achieving Level 4. This discrepancy was evident at every age (English at the Crossroads, OFSTED, 2009). What has been achieved with the current strategy is passive technical competence, leaving active creative competence untouched.
There are three major techniques used in the treatments of phobia: flooding, desensitisation and challenge.
Flooding involves inundating the phobic person with the thing they fear to demonstrate that the feared thing cannot actually harm them. An arachnophobic might be covered with spiders, a claustrophobic locked in a wardrobe.
Desensitisation involves exposing the phobic person to very distant or mild examples of the feared item, while practising relaxation, and gradually increasing the intensity until the phobic person is able to tolerate the full experience without anxiety.
Challenge (an integral part of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) involves engaging the phobic person in dialogue about their fear, rehearsing ways to give them more control of the situation.
A fourth technique, Active Engagement, is currently being trialled in a number of pilot projects with teachers in the UK. In the Well Versed project in Newcastle, teachers develop their own creative skills with the help of a professional poet mentor who also helps them introduce poetry as a writing skill to the classroom: combating metrophobia in teachers before it can be passed on to another generation.
HOW TO READ A POEM
If you are not intrigued by anything in that poem, try a different poem (you are in control of this process). Think of each poem as a food to be tasted, not as a problem to solve
When a poem catches your attention, reread it aloud or subvocally. Think of this as holding the poem in your mouth, savouring its sounds with your tongue
Set it aside - then return to it if and when you feel like it (you are still in control)
Reread it and, guided by pleasure alone, pay attention to its shape, its images, its sounds - which aspects do you enjoy most?
Guided by curiosity this time, explore a bit further. What does it make you feel or think? Are you tempted to read more? Poems with a similar shape or subject matter, for example, or by the same poet?
Now engage with the poetic process by trying to write something similar (e.g. similar in shape, subject matter, imagery, sound)
DR D J TAYLOR has a PhD in Psychology and is Editorial Director at Mslexia, which she founded in 1999. Before that she was an editor at New Internationalist and Writing Women, and has written for Oxfam, UNICEF, Anti Slavery and others about women and social issues. Her books include My Children, My Gold (Virago), a non-fiction travelogue about single mothers, and the novels The Fourth Queen and Hungry Ghosts (both Penguin).
This article first appeared in Mslexia issue 50 (July/August/September 2011, and is reprinted with kind permission.