Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Carolyn Forche explains "Poetry of Witness"

Carolyn Forche, who opens our series on Thursday 1/30, elucidates the meaning of  "Poetry of Witness," a sub-genre of poetry about political violence that she named with the publication of her landmark 1993 anthology, Against Forgetting: A Poetry of Witness.

During her Albany visit, Forche will present the new sequel to that anthology, Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001 (2014).

My own journey began in 1980, upon my return from El Salvador, where I had worked for human rights, and led me through the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, and South Africa. Something happened along the way to the introspective poet I had been. My new work seemed controversial to some of my American contemporaries, who argued either against its "subject matter," or against my right as a North American to contemplate issues viewed as "foreign" to her work, or against any mixing of what they saw as the mutually exclusive realms of the poetic and the political. In attempting to come to terms with the question of poetry and politics, and seeking the solace of poetic camaraderie, I turned to Anna Akhmatova, Yannis Ritsos, Paul Celan, Federico Garcia Lorca, Nazim Hikmet, and others. I began collecting their work, and soon found myself a repository of what began to be called "the poetry of witness." In thinking about these poems, I realized that the arguments regarding poetry and politics had been too narrowly defined. Regardless of apparent "subject matter," these poems bear the trace of extremity within them, and they are, as such, evidence of what occurred. They are also poems as much about poetry as are poems that have no subject other than poetry itself.

More from The Writer in Politics. Ed. William H. Gass and Lorin Cuoco (1996) on the website of the English Department, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign:

More about Forche's Albany visit: