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.
My Iranian friend's father knows many poems by Rumi and Hafiz. He knows them in Farsi, but if you give him time, he'll recite a dozen or more, then figure out the translations for you. An Israeli friend tells me poets are regarded there as national heroes: readers line up in the bookstores of Tel Aviv for a newly released collection of poetry with the eagerness Americans reserve for best-selling novels. In Havana, verses from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado are emblazoned in spray paint on the sides of houses. Almost every time I find myself on a plane next to someone from outside the U.S., I am gifted with a recitation of at least one of the poems he or she holds most precious. I still have the page in my diary where the Pakistani accountant wrote, first in Urdu then underneath in stumbling English, the poem that had won the heart of his wife 45 years earlier. I hope to dig that journal out of storage one day.
As a girl in Hungary in the 1930s, my friend Judith and her schoolmates used to pass the time by reciting the work of contemporary Hungarian poets to each other. "I would go home each night and pick a new poem to learn for the other kids," she remembers. "Everybody did. It was like a game. And besides, there was this feeling of impending war everywhere. Any material possession could be taken in a moment. The only things we knew we could hold on to were what we had inside us."
Could Americans, wrapped in the privilege of our relative material abundance, have temporarily forgotten the importance of "what we have inside us?"
Finally, it seems, we are rising from the sick-bed of Metrophobia, and returning to poetry. Signs of health begin to accrue. Hundreds of thousands of teens throughout the U. S. choose to learn classical and modern poems by heart and practice together for Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation competition. Slam, jam, Def, Hip Hop and rap poets tell it like it is on TV, YouTube, radio waves, and the stages of basement coffeehouses and national theaters. A major Hollywood release of the 2009 holiday season, Invictus, is about Nelson Mandela and how he was saved by a poem. Even our own president is reported to turn to Urdu poetry for sustenance.
Perhaps you, too, have been saved by a poem. I know, I know, you say you don't relate to poetry, but is that a tattered index card in your wallet with a few lines of Mary Oliver on it? And who pinned that Rumi poem to your bulletin board among the "to-do's?" Hey, isn't that a quote from the poet June Jordan on your refrigerator: We are the ones we have been waiting for?
Perhaps our shiny mask of perfect superficial beauty and conquest is finally cracking in the slings and arrows of the economic, political and military messes we have made. Perhaps it is at last becoming inexorably clear that we cannot keep ravaging the world to fill our emptiness. Perhaps we are finally turning inward, blinking a little in the unfamiliar light, and casting about for a way home to our interior life. Poetry offers a path.