Fear is all around us at the moment. Every time you read or listen to the news it’s another story of terror, one way or another. And it’s not limited to the bigger stories of bombing, shooting or Donald Trump; we are learning to fear the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. Golfers fear Zika in Rio, so decline invitations to play at the Olympics – then, the virus turns up closer to home. Black Americans fear those whose job it is supposed to be to protect them, while the police fear toys and telephones.
It can feel at times like we’re living through the hopeless hell of James Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night, where fear permeates everything, even its half-hearted denial in the line “No hope could have no fear”, a kind of desperate whistling in the dark. Thomson’s poem is a foreshadowing of The Waste Land’s ominous swarms of London pedestrians and Eliot’s offer to show the reader “fear in a handful of dust”.
It’s interesting to contrast this urban fear of each other, of the crowd, with Robert Frost’s Storm Fear, where the object of his terror is the power of nature, and where the best bulwark against it is in not being alone. It is the smallness of the family when pitched against the elemental power of the storm that creates the fear in the poet’s mind.
Not that fear of other people is a uniquely urban phenomenon. In Bears at Raspberry Time, Hayden Carruth deflects from the expected fear of the bears in the woods to those who would kill them, so that the actual source of fear is human. Behind that again lies the poet’s fear of both writing and not being able to write, a fear of expectation. WD Snodgrass’s A Locked House starts from a very ordinary fear, that your house may have burned or been broken into in your absence. Of course, the fear is usually groundless, but the destruction of the home comes about not through some external agency but through the actions of those who live in it.
In Beachcomber, the great Scottish poet George Mackay Brown shows how fear of the disapproval of the community we live in can inhibit us and keep us from our true calling in life, at expense to both ourselves and the very community that inhibits us. Because we allow fear to limit us, we become less than we should be.
This idea that the self is what you should really fear is explored by Sharon Olds in The Fear of Oneself, where the speaker realises that her partner’s estimation of her inner strength is not matched by her self-awareness as someone who comes “from a / long line / of women / who put themselves / first.” Her fear is not of some particular thing, but that she might fail those who depend on her most, her children.
This internal fear takes a different form in Robert Creeley’s For Fear. Why, the poem asks, will we return to painful situations even when we know they will not change? And the answer is fear of change, of the unknown, of abandonment. In a poem called 3, Dorothy Porter writes of how we willingly take the road of fear, with little or no regard to our own wellbeing or happiness. These poems take Roosevelt’s “the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself” and turn it on its head somewhat; the only thing we have to fear, they say, is what lies within ourselves.
And so, this month’s Poster poems challenge is to confront your fears in verse. These may be induced by external factors or they might be entirely internal. One way or another, you are invited to share your poems of fear here.