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Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500 - 2001 Paperback – January 27, 2014
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*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
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 Forche and Wu succinctly establish the historical context for each poet s work in glinting biographical essays. --Donna Seaman"
[A] testament to the travails of men and women over the last 500 years, collected and curated with infinite care. --Valerie Ryan"
Argues for the importance of a public-spirited poetry, willing to speak the truth to power. --Robyn Creswell"
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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.
“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.
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.