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Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001 [Kindle Edition]

Carolyn Forché , Duncan Wu
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A groundbreaking anthology containing the work of poets who have witnessed war, imprisonment, torture, and slavery.

A companion volume to Against Forgetting, Poetry of Witness is the first anthology to reveal a tradition that runs through English-language poetry. The 300 poems collected here were composed at an extreme of human endurance--while their authors awaited execution, endured imprisonment, fought on the battlefield, or labored on the brink of breakdown or death. All bear witness to historical events and the irresistibility of their impact. Alongside Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth, this volume includes such writers as Anne Askew, tortured and executed for her religious beliefs during the reign of Henry VIII; Phillis Wheatley, abducted by slave traders; Samuel Bamford, present at the Peterloo Massacre in 1819; William Blake, who witnessed the Gordon Riots of 1780; and Samuel Menashe, survivor of the Battle of the Bulge.

Poetry of Witness argues that such poets are a perennial feature of human history, and it presents the best of that tradition, proving that their work ranks alongside the greatest in the language.

"Carolyn Forche's monumental Against Forgetting: Poetry of Witness was one of the twentieth century's last great books of poetry, one of few volumes in the English language which could claim to change the way my generation viewed poetry in translation from around the world. In this sequel we are given an inexhaustible, indispensable follow-up -- a collection of voices in English that illuminate human terror . . . This book, so passionately and masterfully edited, shows English poetics anew. It shows canonical voices such as Keats and Donne from a completely different perspective and it reintroduces contemporary readers to the genius of some unjustly neglected poets who, out of war and barbarism, out of terror and fear, composed a new music for human survival." Ilya Kaminsky


Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The 300 poems gathered so astutely in this authoritative and stirring anthology were written by poets of the past whose lives were changed, even destroyed, by war, oppression, imprisonment, torture, slavery, and exile. Poet Forché (Blue Hour, 2003) has long been a champion and practitioner of poetry of conscience, creating the genre-defining Against Forgetting (1993). She now teams up with fellow English professor Wu to excavate the roots of this essential tradition of poetry that confronts “evil and its embodiments” in “appeals for a shared sense of humanity and collective resistance.” The sheer enormity of this “living archive,” an artistic record of five centuries of violence and suffering and protest and truth-telling, illuminates humankind at its most horrific and most glorious. The selections are blazing and haunting, poems of fierce precision, communal consciousness, courage, and reverberating beauty, and Forché and Wu succinctly establish the historical context for each poet’s work in glinting biographical essays. William Blake, John Keats, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson are all seen from fresh vantage points. Here, too, are antislavery poet Lydia Maria Child; Olaudah Equiano, an enslaved Nigerian; Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay; WWII veteran and dissident Karl Shapiro; and conscientious objector William Stafford—“You walk on toward / September, the depot, the dark, the light, the dark.” --Donna Seaman

Review

The 300 poems gathered so astutely in this authoritative and stirring anthology were written by poets of the past whose lives were changed, even destroyed, by war, oppression, imprisonment, torture, slavery, and exile. . . . The selections are blazing and haunting, poems of fierce precision, communal consciousness, courage, and reverberating beauty, and Forché and Wu succinctly establish the historical context for each poet's work in glinting biographical essays. William Blake, John Keats, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson are all seen from fresh vantage points. Donna Seaman, Booklist


In this anthology, you'll find works that deal explicitly with politics or atrocity (Samuel Bamford on the Peterloo Massacre, Anne Askew's account of being persecuted for heresy), as well as writing that speaks more obliquely to the authors' experiences of extremity (Blake's "Prisons are built with stones of Law" is considered in light of his presence at the Gordon Riots). The editors' extensive and varied selection amounts to a reconfiguration of English literary history and a consideration of the purposes and achievements of poetry. -- The New Yorker

Poems by those "marked by history". An original and punchy take on the well trodden path of anthologies. The linking passages are particularly well done. -- Melvyn Bragg, Books of the Year in The Observer (London)

Carolyn Forche interviewed about Poetry of Witness on PBS NewsHour: youtube.com/watch?v=IqLszwR7fkk

Forché's living archive is testament to the travails of men and women over the last 500 years, collected and curated with infinite care. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

“The selections are blazing and haunting, poems of fierce precision, communal consciousness, courage, and reverberating beauty, and Forché and Wu succinctly establish the historical context for each poet’s work in glinting biographical essays.” (Donna Seaman - Booklist, Starred Review)

“[A] testament to the travails of men and women over the last 500 years, collected and curated with infinite care.” (Valerie Ryan - Shelf Awareness)

“Argues for the importance of a public-spirited poetry, willing to speak the truth to power.” (Robyn Creswell - The New Yorker)

Product Details

  • File Size: 1307 KB
  • Print Length: 673 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0393340422
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (January 20, 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00FQUDMZO
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #565,673 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Essential Poetry January 27, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Carolyn Forche has compiled a collection of poems which, in their devastating honesty, offer hope for the human race. Perhaps by acknowledging our own capacity for evil, we can move beyond it in the future. An essential book for all who care!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars REVIEW OF "POETRY OF WITNESS" January 27, 2014
Format:Paperback
IT IUS A REMARKABLE COLLECTION OF IMPORTANT LITERATURE. MRS FORCHE HAS GIVEN THE WORLD A BOOK TO READ AND RE-READ, AND TO CONSIDER HOW MANKIND TORTURES ITSELF.

RIVA DUNAIEF
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An instant classic February 11, 2014
Format:Paperback
Not just art for art's sake, which would be important enough; this compilation of the world's most riveting, important poets is art for humanity's sake. In the realm of the work of Szymborska, Milosz, Herbert, and voices emerging from the ravages of war, this couldn't be a more timely and necessary work. How long are we going to bear witness to the atrocities that our brethren engage in, time and again? Our own loved ones, and our most cherished writers, are united in this eternal question. Against Forgetting, and now Poetry of Witness, should be required reading not only for university curriculums in literature, but also in history. This book is quite possibly the most important anthology of our generation.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 500 Years of Poetry Made Fresh, New February 1, 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A poem of witness, as Carolyn Forché has written here and elsewhere, is not a poem about a calamitous event; not a poem written about the body-and-soul-wrenching experience of war, or torture, or persecution, or disease. It is a poem written in the aftermath. So, then, the poem arises from the experience and is not simply journalistic reportage or political discourse.

“Aftermath is a temporal debris field,” Forché writes in her introductory essay (“Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art”), “where historical remains are strewn (of large events as well as those peripheral or lost); where that-which-happened remains present, including the consciousness in which such events arose. . .As such, it calls upon the reader, who is the other of this work, to be, in turn marked by what such language makes present before her, what it holds open and begets in the reader.”

Forché and her editorial collaborator, Duncan Wu, have gathered together in this volume 500 years of poetry in English written in this aftermath. These are poems with which the reader is very likely familiar or knows quite well, but now, within this context of witness, can be read afresh and anew, with greater appreciation, perhaps, for the human consciousness that experienced these events and wrote in their aftermath.

From More and Wyatt to Shelley and Keats; from Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson to Yeats, Kipling and Crane; Shapiro and Stafford to Snodgrass and Gunn — this is a grand and sweeping volume that bears witness to our shared human condition.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Man's capability for inhumanity November 16, 2014
Format:Paperback
I was privileged to hear a joint reading by the editors yesterday at a humanities conference in Baltimore.
I was stunned by the impact of their presentation.
Each selected poem was preceded by a brief biography of the poet which accounted for his inclusion as a witness.
One of us asked if it was sometimes necessary to separate themselves from their work for a time because of its power and horror.
Professor Wu responded: "It would have been unprofessional to cry while we were working."
This remarkable and wonderful answer echoed the poems themselves in which there was no mention of tears nor any hint of escape from the inevitable.
The readers held themselves under tight control while reading ... it became clear that the powerfully evocative quality of the poems made witnesses of all of us.
I commend this timeless testament to man's capability for inhumanity.
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