Carolyn Forché: on a Poetry of Witness
[Forchés work emerges from a tradition of 20th Century European poetry in which political circumstances pervade the poem and necessarily complicate the extent to which the poet can exercise agency. Among other things, the essay offers examples from Miklos Radnóti, Paul Celan and Nazim Hikmet to introduce American readers to a kind of poetry that emerges from concerns that cannot be defined as exclusively private or public.]
Poetry of witness presents the reader with an interesting interpretive problem. We are accustomed to rather easy categories: we distinguish between "personal" and "political" poems the former calling to mind lyrics of love and emotional loss, the latter indicating a public partisanship that is considered divisive, even when necessary. The distinction between the personal and the political gives the political realm too much and too little scope; at the same time, it renders the personal too important and not important enough. If we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the most powerful sites of resistance. The celebration of the personal, however, can indicate a myopia, an inability to see how larger structures of the economy and the state circumscribe, if not determine, the fragile realm of the individual.
We need a third term, one that can describe the space between the state and the supposedly safe havens of the personal. Let us call this space "the social." As North Americans we have been fortunate: wars for us (provided we are not combatants) are fought elsewhere, in other countries. The cities bombed are other peoples cities. The houses destroyed are other peoples houses. We are also fortunate in that we do not live under martial law; there are nominal restrictions on state censorship; our citizens are not sent into exile. We are legally and juridically free to choose our associates, and to determine our communal lives. But perhaps we should not consider our social lives as merely the products of our choice: the social is a place of resistance and struggle, where books are published, poems read, and protest disseminated. It is the sphere in which claims against the political order are made in the name of justice.
By situating poetry in this social space, we can avoid some of our residual prejudices. A poem that calls us from the other side of a situation of extremity cannot be judged by simplistic notions of "accuracy" or "truth to life." It will have to be judged, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said of confession, by its consequences, not by our ability to verify its truth. In fact, the poem might be our only evidence that an event has occurred: it exists for us as the sole trace of an occurrence. As such, there is nothing for us to base the poem on, no independent account that will tell us whether or not we can see a given text as being "objectively" true. Poem as trace, poem as evidence.
From Carolyn Forché, "Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness," American Poetry Review 22:2 (March-April 1993), 17.
The word politics presents more serious difficulties, particularly in the literary culture of the United States, where the word is most often applied pejoratively, and where politics is regarded as a contaminant of serious literary work. Our poets, most especially, are relegated to the hermetic sphere of lyric expressivity and linguistic art, where they are expected to remain unsullied by historical, political, and social forces. I speak to you today as a rather contaminated poet, but my understanding of the political is in accord with Hannah Arendt's: "To be political, to live in a polis [means] that everything [is] decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence. In Greek self-understanding) to force people by violence, to command rather than persuade, were pre-political ways to deal with people characteristic of life outside the polis." Finally, we are discussing the writer with a politics—and of this I can only say that it would be difficult for me to imagine a writer or intellectual who would profess to be without one. I live and write, however, in the administered world of a Western industrial state, where communicative thought and action are inhibited; where money circulates more fluently than verbal forms; where democracy does not extend beyond the scope of its institutions; where "total communication yields endless debate in stead of change" (Otto Karl Werckmeister); in an economy so deeply dependent on military production that the national consciousness has been colonized by war; where armament and disarmament are simultaneously professed; where intellectuals find themselves "aesthetically oversensitized and politically numbed" (Werckmeister); and where the enlightened powerless occasionally produce works that are serendipitously drawn into debates beyond the literary sphere.
During the past ten years, I have been collecting the work of poets from all over the world who endured conditions of social and historical extremity during the twentieth century—those who suffered wars, imprisonment, military occupation, house arrest, forced exile, and political repression. The result is an anthology of works in English and in translation, titled Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. The work is the result of a decade-long effort to understand the impress of such extremity upon the poetic imagination. 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.
When I presented this collection to the publisher for consideration, I was asked what I meant by poets of witness—just what sort of poet would I include, and could I provide an example? I found myself telling the story of Miklós Radnóti.
In 1944, Miklós Radnóti, one of the foremost Hungarian poets of his generation, was sent to do forced labor in Yugoslavia. Once there, he was able to obtain a small notebook, in which he wrote his last ten poems, accompanied by a message in Hungarian, Croatian, German, French, and English: "[this] contains the poems of the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti . . . to Mr. Gyula Ortutay, Budapest University lecturer. . . . Thank you in advance."
The Germans were losing the war and decided to evacuate the camp and return the workers to Hungary. Radnóti, guessing that the first column would be safest, volunteered to go back. The forced march he recorded in his poetry was arduous. Once in Hungary, he was placed in the hands of soldiers who, unable to find a hospital with room for these prisoners, and frightened of becoming absent without leave, took Radnóti and twenty-one others to a mass grave and executed them.
The pathos of this story is plain: Radnóti was killed for reasons of expedience. Moreover, if he had not volunteered to go back to Hungary, he might have been saved by Marshal Tito's partisans. But the story does not end—as millions of such stories ended—with an arbitrary execution and the anonymity of a mass grave. After the war, Radnóti's wife, Fani, was among those who found and exhumed the grave in the village of Abda. The coroner's report for corpse number 12 read:
A visiting card with the name Dr. Miklós Radnóti printed on it. An ID card stating the mother's name as Ilona Grosz. Father's name illegible. Born in Budapest, May 5, 1909. Cause of death: shot in the nape. In the back pocket of the trousers a small notebook was found soaked in the fluids of the body and blackened by wet earth. This was cleaned and dried in the sun.
In the Bori notesz (Bor notebook) were Radnóti's final poems, among them the Razglednici (postcard poems) written during his imprisonment. They are collected in Against Forgetting, along with the works of one hundred and forty-four other significant poets, many of whom did not survive, but their works remain with us as poetic evidence of the dark times in which they lived. "There is a kind of writer appearing with greater and greater frequency among us who witnesses the crimes of his own government against himself and his countrymen," writes E. L. Doctorow, ". . . His is the universe of the imprisoned, the tortured, the disfigured, and doleful authority for the truth of his work is usually his own body. . . . So let us propose discussion of the idea that a new art, with its own rules, is being generated in the twentieth century: the Lieder of victims of the state. "Most of the important poets of our century (particularly those not writing in English) can be included in their number.
This is a poetry that presents the American reader with an interesting interpretive problem. We are accustomed to rather easy categories: we distinguish between "personal" and "political" poems—the former calling to mind lyrics of love and emotional loss, the latter indicating a public partisanship that is considered divisive, even when necessary. The distinction between the personal and the political gives the political realm too much and too little scope: it renders the personal too important and not important enough. To globalize the feminist point that the personal is political is either to indicate that the personal is completely reducible to relations of power, or that the personal, on its own, can affect those relations and that power. There are dangers in both implications. The effacement of the personal can be seen not as a moment of real enlightenment, but as a surrender of the individual to the overbearing realities of an increasingly alienated world. If we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the most powerful sites of resistance. The celebration of the personal, however, can indicate a myopia, an inability to see how larger structures of the economy and the state circumscribe, if not determine, the fragile realm of individuality.
Radnóti's poems evade these easy categories. They are not just personal, nor are they, strictly speaking, political. What is one to make of the first lines of "Forced March":
The man who, having collapsed, rises, takes steps, is insane;
he'll move an ankle, a knee, an arrant mass of pain,
and take to the road again
The poem becomes an apostrophe to a fellow marcher, and so it is not only a record of experience but an exhortation against despair. It is not a cry for sympathy but a call for strength. The hope that the poem relies on, however, is not "political" as such: it is not a celebration of solidarity in the name of a class or common enemy. It is not partisan in any accepted sense. It opposes the dream of future satisfaction to the reality of current pain. One could argue that it uses the promise of personal happiness against a politically induced misery, but it does so in the name of the poet's fellows, in the spirit of communality.
from "The Poetry of Witness" in The Writer in Politics. Ed. William H. Gass and Lorin Cuoco. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University.
Return to Carolyn Forché