In the introduction to her anthology, “Against Forgetting,” Carolyn Forché writes that a poem of witness is both “an event and the trace of an event” (33), which suggests to me that in addition to acknowledging and normalizing a traumatic event, a poem is, in and of itself, an event. Forché observes that that while the former is rarely entered into voluntarily, the latter most certainly is.
Therefore, responding to traumatic events, over which the poet has little or no control, through a voluntary and overt act, such as writing a poem, accomplishes two things: acknowledges the event (instead of denying it) and initiates a new event, one that both normalizes the initial event and allows the poet to exert some control over the event’s effects.
Siegfried Sassoon’s “Repression of War Experience,” illustrates well Forché’s idea of the poem as an event by translating the very personal space of a soldier’s mental landscape into recognizable images that bring this specific war event into the realm of the social. The speaker’s actions, “Now light the candles” (1) and “light your pipe” (10), are as common on the battle front as they are to a typical living room. Likewise, familiar images like books “Standing so quiet and patient on their shelves” (18) or the garden that “waits for something that delays” (28) harken the cozy atmosphere of home, an image any reader can easily visualize (made all the more poignant by the speaker’s distance from home). Sassoon’s ability to tap into the universal experience of trying to avoid certain thinking patterns is also effectively rendered in lines like “it’s bad to think of war, / When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to scare you;” (5-4). The reader, like the speaker (and the moth that inhabits this poem) can all easily “blunder in / And scorch their wings” (2-3) on those gagging thoughts and find themselves “driven out to jabber among the trees” (8). The universality of these specifics can be translated to other traumatic events and could be revised to reflect the experience of a mother with postpartum depression, or a child who is abused by a parent or school-yard bully. But the poem at hand is about neither of these things. We know this from poem’s title as well as such lines as “You’d never think there was a bloody war on!” (34) and “Those whispering guns” (38) (a particularly striking juxtaposition of images). “Repression of War Experience” is a response to a specific event experienced by the poet and is in turn a specific event that is the poet’s experience. The universal language of witness allows us to appreciate another’s experience without diminishing an its distinctness and we understand that this poem is “a specific kind of event, a specific kind of trauma” (Forché 33), separate from our own.
Denise Levertrov illustrates the personal struggles of one who has lost her right arm in “Weeping Woman” by presenting it in simple language. The reader is able to breach the distance between themselves and the speaker of the poem through a series of vivid and carefully chosen specifics. “She cannot write the alphabet any more / on the kindergarten blackboard” (1-2), conveys a true sense of this injury’s debilitating effects on the woman. Being able to write the letters of the alphabet is a fundamental skill for most of us, one we often take for granted. Without it, the woman is infantilized; she has been reduced to status of a young child. The image of the kindergarten blackboard reinforces this idea while also suggesting the woman’s efficacy as a teacher, as a parent or as a vocation, has also been drastically compromised. The line “She cannot hold her baby and caress it at the same time” (6) illustrates the debilitating affects her injury has had on the tender bond between mother and child, a consequence most readers will recognize as a tragedy. Equally disturbing is the observation that the woman “cannot use a rifle” (12) so cannot bear arms to defend herself or participate in the active rejection of the oppression to which she is victim. She is helpless in a way none of us hope to experience. Finally, Levertrov brings the poem into the social context, that “place of resistance and struggle, where books are published, poems read, and protest disseminated,” by observing the complicity of Levertrov’s adopted country, the United States:
When you mutilate our land and bodies,
It is your own soul you destroy
firmly placing this poem in the “sphere in which claims against the political order are made in the name of justice” (31)
Forché also observes that “[b]ecause the poetry of witness marks a resistance to false attempts at unification, it will take many forms… [i]t will speak in the language of the common man or in an esoteric language of paradox or literary privilege” (46), to which Ezra Pound’s “Pisan Canto LXXIV” belongs:
The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent
Manes! Manes was tanned and stuffed,
Thus Ben and la Clara a Milano
By the heels at Milano
That maggots shd / eat the dead bullock (1-6)
exemplifies Forché’s assertion that “[e]xtremity […] demands new forms or alters older modes of poetic thought [and] also breaks forms and creates forms from these breaks” (42).
Against Forgetting” is a seminal, and moving, addition to America’s poetic cannon that preserves and brings to light poems of witness for a broader audience and includes such preeminent poets as Nemerov, Akhmatova, Hikmet and Milosz. In addition, Forché’s introduction effectively refines the definition of political poetry for poets, teachers, critics, and activists in the field. As long as there are humans, there will be acts of atrocity. Even as I write there are seven countries listed on “Genocide Watch” that are actively exterminating people based on race or religion. As Nemerov aptly observed in “Ultima Ratio Reagan,”
The reason we do not learn from history is
Because we are not the people who learned last time.
We know that we know better than they knew,
And history will not blame us if once again
The light at the end of the tunnel is the train.
While there is much more to discover and learn about the poetry of extremity and the processes behind writing such poetry, Forché’s continues to be the conversation to which poets and critics must refer to and cite for years to come, just as these are the poems that best exemplify the poetry of extremity for the twentieth century.