Patrick Somerville

Fear of Poetry

Today, I am a poet. But as a child I found Dr. Seuss’s books irritating, and I only checked books out of the library because I liked how they decorated my nightstand. In grade and middle school, the only thing I remember reading or writing were love letters, carefully folded in triangles like the flags of third-world countries I couldn’t name. And looking back, I believe I only wrote and read those letters because they seemed to be required of my middle class upbringing.

The first poem I remember hating was Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” on which I had to write a report in 10th grade. My English teacher’s name was Mrs. Vrba. She had a broken foot for most of the year, and I had once arm-wrestled (ever so adroitly) her daughter Tricia in 7th grade. Tricia and I were at the State Science Fair at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. I took first place with a zoology project about how horseshoe magnets affected earthworms (my mother’s idea; Mother also typed and wrote most of the report; I was proficient at the design and stenciling of the peg board; Father did the sawing and the screwing); but more importantly, I took Tricia’s hands in mine in the indoor/outdoor pool at the Howard Johnson’s one dimly-lit afternoon. I hope Tricia, too, can still recall how we detained each other in that lukewarm bath. Telling myself this story of Tricia during her mother’s poetry lessons was the only way I saw poetry as relevant: that is, poetry served only as a distraction from real life.

When I went to college, I didn’t fly. My father shuttled me the three-hour drive. And I still disliked poems. In fact, I took only one English class, and I majored in political science. Instead of love letters, there was now cunnilingus. I enjoyed it much more than writing and my love interests probably did as well. Before I was 25, I had read three novels, of which two were Catcher in the Rye. That’s not a boast; rather, it’s something I’m ashamed of—like my fear of flying. But when I was 25 I moved to Belgium on a research grant and began living in a one-room lean-to attached to a 14th-century building in the small college town of Leuven, where everyone around me spoke Flemish. In other words, I was isolated and had no friends. I soon realized, however, that books and the voices in them made for decent companionship. And because most poems are brief, I could make a lot of friends fast.

For years, I wouldn’t admit to being a poet, and for even more years I wouldn’t admit to being an aerophobe. Both seem unfit for modern life. Now, I am also a professor of English and creative writing. I teach poetry for a living, which, to me, is at once a silly and vital occupation. The poet Marianne Moore once called poetry contemptible and genuine in the same breath, which is not the same thing as calling it genuinely contemptible. For the same reason poetry is irrelevant as compared to, say, heart surgery or fire fighting or trash collecting, it is also important. Because poetry can’t make money, it escapes co-modification (most of the time). Its irrelevance becomes its importance. I don’t know how exactly poetry is pertinent to a fear of flying; I just know that the two often link up in my head, as in this poem by A.R. Ammons:

Small Song

The reeds give
way to the
wind and give
the wind away

These four lines were the first lines of poetry I ever enjoyed. I could and could not make out what they were telling me. These seven words (a few repeated) couldn’t have been any simpler and yet they made (and still make) my mind do little flips. As in W.B. Yeats’s famous line—“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”—I still keep trying to discern which is which: Are the reeds only reedy because they’re moved by the wind, or is the wind only windy because we detect its effects? It is, of course, not necessary to decide between the two. But no matter how many times I read these lines, I feel ridiculously compelled to pick one over the other—as if I’ve just survived a water landing and must choose between my wife or our son, only one of whom I can save.


Silk Under Wear

When nobody else is around
drinking makes its own sound

—Mark Yakich