Versify #6 by Pamela Burger

Poetry of Witness

One of my favorite poems of all time is Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel“. The poem is included in her 1981 collection The Country Between Us, where it is one of several poems detailing her experience as a journalist in El Salvador during that country’s political turmoil in the late 1970’s. “The Colonel” is to my mind a perfect example of what Forché calls “poetry of witness,” that is, poetry that articulates an individual’s coming up against the forces of historic trauma. In “The Colonel,” the titular tyrant invites the poet to dinner, where, after initial pleasantries, “He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this.”  The poem perfectly balances the horror of the political atrocity and the shock of the individual witness, who can do no more than report on the events before her. Using a simile to describe the moment, the poet declares “There is no other way to say this,” as if explaining that it is only through poetic language that one can communicate such horrors.

Since 1981, Forché has become something of a laureate for atrocity poetry, having published further volumes on the theme (including the ethereal The Angel of History) and editing the 1993 anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. This year Norton releases a kind of follow-up anthology: Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English 1500-2001co-edited by Forche and Duncan Wu.

The collection is not at all what I was expecting and I was surprised at many of the poems included because I had encountered them before in vastly different contexts.  The book is divided into historic moments with titles like “The Age of Tyrrany,” “Civil War” (The 17th-century English civil war, not the American one) and “The Age of Uncertainty.”  Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is included under the period of “Revolutionary Upheaval.”  In an introduction to the Romantic poet, the editors explain that though the poem is considered apolitical, its “ancestral voices prophesying war” gives us “insight into recent history.” Coleridge and Robert Southey’s “The Devil’s Thoughts” is placed in the context of “locked-down, reactionary England.”

Without the editorial introductions to each poet–each one gives brief and usually unsatisfactory explanations for the poems’ inclusion–a reader might not have any clue as to why many of these poems would be considered “poetry of witness.”  Why, for example, is an excerpt from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress included here? The answer seems to be because Bunyan was a soldier and his experiences in war led him to the introspection out of which arose his spiritual writings.

Which is fair enough. It is just unusual for a Norton anthology to have such a clear thematic project.  Usually such classroom textbooks are meant to showcase a large breadth of work to introduce and survey the literature for entry-level students.  This anthology does something quite different by placing well-known and anthologized poems in a new light. By giving us a different context to examine, say, Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” we can look at it as part of a tradition of “witness” rather than, say, Romantic propaganda for democracy and free thought. However, I question whether, if someone had never read “Kubla Khan” or “Ode to the West Wind” before, and came across it for the first time in this collection, they might get a very limited view of these poems.  Nevertheless, for those who are interested in reexamining many classics they might not have read since college, or even high school, this presents a thought-provoking layout.


Pamela Burger

Pamela Burger has a very short attention span, which is why she loves poetry. Her poems have appeared in several small magazines you might never have read. She lives in Brooklyn, teaches writing and literature, and is an instructional technologist for the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College.