Metrophobia: Are We Afraid of Poetry?

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Finally, it seems, we are rising from the sick-bed of Metrophobia, and returning to poetry.

Metrophobia (otherwise known as the fear of poetry), an American pandemic more tenacious than Swine Flu, is finally on the wane. And not a moment too soon.

For the last few generations, our nation has managed to marginalize poetry, an art that is and always has been central to the species. Since the earliest hominids sounded their pre-literate, poetic musilanguage to one another, since ancient Greek orators recited poems at the Olympic Games, since the first Griot in Mali turned the history of his tribe into poetry, igniting a tradition carried on by his descendants today, since Sappho’s lyrics, Basho’s haikus and Rumi’s ghazals, poetry has been known to be a necessary nutrient in the human diet, as essential as breath or music.

And still today in most countries, poetry resides in its time-honored place at the heart of the culture. There, people turn to poetry the way we turn to the music that fills our homes and cars, the art that covers our walls, the architecture that lines our streets, the plays, dance and film that fill our theatres. In the Middle East, for instance, the most popular prime-time TV show is The Million’s Poet, boasting an audience of over 70 million viewers and ratings higher than sports or the news. Within a format similar to American Idol, male and female poets from throughout the Gulf region, some from very poor Bedouin tribes, perform poems on all themes imaginable. The show has even inspired a TV channel completely dedicated to poetry.

In most cultures, reciting poetry is not relegated to the poets, or to the alabaster halls of academia. People who never dreamed of being poets, and some who cannot read or write, recite their favorite poems at the slightest provocation. Poems are recited at parties, at the family dinner table, on the street. My students from Wales and Ireland describe how the poems of Dylan Thomas or William Butler Yeats are exchanged into the night at almost any local pub. (…)

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