Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001, eds. Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu, (W.W. Norton)
On January 22, I received an electronic review copy of Poetry of Witness from W.W. Norton. Like all of the Norton anthologies this book is huge, so I haven’t begun to work my way completely through it, but I am already at a point where I feel that, even if I used every superlative in my writer’s armamentarium, I wouldn’t be doing this collection justice.
Poetry of Witness, which Forché also calls literature of that-which-happened, has a long history, though I find it less often than I’d like in English-language poetry, which seems more preoccupied with relating the complexity of individual emotion—whether joyful of mournful. Forché’s forward, “Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Lives,” attempts to forge a definition of poetry of witness that captures its meaning for author, reader, and society alike, concluding
In the poetry of witness, the poems make present to us the experience, rather than a symbolic representation. When we read the poem as witness, we are marked by it and become ourselves witnesses to what it has made present before us. Language incises the page, wounding it with testimonial presence, and the reader is marked by encounter with that presence. Witness begets witness. The text we read becomes a living archive.
Forché reminds us that this living archive is not just figurative, but literal: Anna Akhmatova burned many of her poems after friends had memorized them, keeping them present when their physical presence would have been a very real threat to her life.
Poetry of witness emerges from, not after, experience, since it testifies to experiences that cannot be left behind, cannot become after. Forché argues that the language of poetry of witness is a damaged—and therefore transformed—language. The body of thought, like the body itself can be broken, (partially) rebuilt, mended:
The witness who writes out of extremity writes his or her wound, as if such writing were making an incision. Consciousness itself is cut open. At the site of the wound, language breaks, becomes tentative, interrogational, kaleidoscopic. The form of this language bears the trance of extremity, and may be composed of fragments: questions, aphorisms, broken passages of lyric prose or poetry, quotations, dialogue, brief and lucid passages that may or may not resemble what previously had been written.
This volume, which is arranged chronologically, is a companion to Forché’s 1993 anthology, Against Forgetting (also published by Norton), which focuses on 20th Century poetry of witness. Poetry of Witness, with its broader focus, offers a powerful lineage of refusal, of questioning, on individuals destroyed upon the altars of states. These poems are part of the flow of literary witness across the last five hundred years of our history: long, damaged, glistening strands, like ropes, like rivers, like the twist of dna. By testifying to the worst in us, they preserve not only horror, but the hope of something better.
I don’t have now, and don’t know if I ever will have, words to capture the fierce, essential nature of this collection. I do know I will read and reread it—and, I hope, use it as a spur to thought, word, and action.