Poetry and Catastrophe

Poetry and Catastrophe

By privileging historical catastrophe, a new poetry anthology narrows the definition of art.


In 1993, a poetry anthology appeared that seemed to speak directly to the spirit of the times and, in so doing, appeal to an audience far larger than what poetry in English could generally boast. More than 800 pages long and featuring the work of 145 poets, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness was a heady book for a turbulent era, when several ideologies against which Americans had tended to define their own politics for generations, among them Soviet communism and South African apartheid, were unraveling or had collapsed. As Carolyn Forché, the anthology’s editor, explained in its introduction, the express purpose of the project was to monumentalize poems about the major atrocities and injustices of the recent past: “Many poets did not survive, but their works remain with us as poetic witness to the dark times in which they lived.” The anthology was greeted with enthusiasm, some of it fueled by an inchoate fear that history was accelerating, or may even have ended, and was indifferent to what we deem worthy of remembrance. After all, what is all the hand-wringing about Americans’ lack of historical memory, or the mantra “Never forget” applied to everything from nightclub fires to genocides, but a tacit acknowledgment of our own oblivion, and also of how, despite tragedies personal and collective, most of us somehow manage to go on with our lives?

In some respects, Forché wasn’t breaking new ground. Poetry has long been enlisted as a tonic to forgetfulness, with poets and critics reminding readers, with more pedantry than irony, that the muse of lyric poetry is the daughter of Mnemosyne, or Memory. What made the project daring was Forché’s suggestion that beyond being a medium for reflecting on historical realities, poetry could also serve a testimonial or evidentiary purpose. Because poems written from “conditions of historical and social extremity” bear the “impress of extremity,” we can regard them as “evidence of what occurred.” Instead of meditating on the record, poetry could be the record.

Against Forgetting was a powerful inspiration for its early readers, myself among them. It expanded horizons, giving many of us our first glimpse of major poets from Eastern Europe and Latin America, even if the book’s capaciousness meant that a glimpse of their faces in the crowd is all we got. Yet as both a collection of texts and a framework for their interpretation, the anthology has not aged well. Although Forché promised “a resistance to false attempts at unification,” it is precisely a false unification that her anthology proffered. Poems with no discernible bearing on a historical circumstance were thrust under such weighty rubrics as “Revolution and Repression in the Soviet Union” and “Repression and Revolution in Latin America,” with even the headings eliding the particularity of places and events. It was an act of martyrology. No less problematic was the book’s unquestioning sense of being on the right side of history, an attitude that in our globalized society has been the source of no end of heartache. Which is why Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500–2001, a new anthology edited by Forché and Duncan Wu, is so baffling. Not only does it suffer from the conceptual flaws of its antecedent; it compounds nearly all of them.

Despite its breadth, the earlier anthology was insistently Eurocentric; barely more than a half-dozen of its poets wrote in a non-European language. For its part, Poetry of Witness dispenses with linguistic diversity altogether, focusing on English-language poetry written in North America and the British Isles. (The recently published anthology Another English, edited by Catherine Barnett and Tiphanie Yanique, offers a sense of the excellent poetry being written in English elsewhere.) At the same time, the editorial notes focus, almost exclusively, on war and political turmoil, seeming to suggest that these are the only forms of communal experience worth witnessing.

Even with its narrow historical interests, the poems included in Against Forgetting are inconsistent in quality and purpose: poems that are not especially good, but that have some bearing on a momentous and tragic historical event, appear alongside excellent poems that don’t seem to qualify as poems of witness at all. Poetry of Witness is similarly at odds with itself, as are its editors about its aim, so much so that Forché and Wu each provide an introductory essay that fails to cohere with the other. Of the two, Wu’s is the more sober, though he repeatedly runs up against the contradictory notion that, on the one hand, poems are always written as testimonials to the poet’s own experience, and on the other, the poet is secondary to the event itself that calls to be witnessed in the poem. At one point, Wu tries to draw a lesson from William Blake’s presence in London during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780. Instead of focusing on Blake as a “mythmaker or cryptographer,” a view that Blake deliberately courted, Wu suggests the poet’s work embodies “the terror and excitement that came from watching the world burn down,” and concludes that poetry of witness, as a critical lens, “argues that, at the point at which the artist confronts extremity—whether imprisonment, torture, or warfare—his vision is altered irrevocably, turning utterance into testimony.” This should be self-evident: as individuals and communities, we are changed by our experiences.

But by privileging historical catastrophe, Wu makes a value judgment that dramatically narrows the definition of art. In Blake’s case, it leads him to downplay how the poet’s intensive study of drawing, engraving and the Bible shaped his vision not only of the Gordon Riots, but of poetic form and expression in general. To complicate matters, whereas historians disagree as to whether Blake participated in the Gordon Riots, Wu presents the event as the touchstone of Blake’s art. When Blake notes the “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” in the faces of strangers in “London,” written over a decade after the riots and included in Poetry of Witness, are we to suppose that the poet is offering a veiled testimony about an event that took place years earlier, and that may or may not have affected him? The editors’ own criteria are applied idiosyncratically and imply that either everything is poetry of witness, or nothing is. The only difference is whether we choose to read with blinkers on.

There is certainly great value in drawing attention to the historical context of a poem. We ignore an essential feature of literature when we lose sight of its power as an artifact of a particular moment, place or era. Still, it is difficult to read Poetry of Witness without quickly sensing that the editors are gaming the system to support their narrow preconception of poetry’s utility. Prevarications like “perhaps,” “might,” “could have” and “may be” suffuse the biographical and explanatory notes. Or consider their gloss on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s visionary poem “Kubla Khan”: “‘Kubla Khan’ has been read as apolitical, though the ‘ancestral voices prophesying war’ suggest some insight into recent history; after all, it is the inherent propensity for conflict, something we now understand as part of our genetic inheritance, that turns revolution (however well motivated) into bloodshed.” There is a persistent sense that the editors want the poems they have included to refer to specific instances of political violence or upheaval, even when there is little or no evidence to support their claim, and even when pressing the point diminishes a poem’s range of meaning.

* * *

I don’t mean to suggest that the notion of witness is entirely without merit. Forché and Wu have assembled a good selection of poems about the last century’s two world wars, though the editorial decision not to include work by any poet already anthologized in Against Forgetting leaves these pages feeling gutted. In the earlier sections, too, there are poems that serve an evidentiary purpose quite naturally. By its nature the occasional poem, such as the famous elegy that Chidiock Tichborne penned while awaiting execution in the Tower of London in 1586, hews closely to its event. The same can be true of epistolary poems, which typically communicate their context directly from author to addressee. Thus the gorgeous poems exchanged in 1598 between John Donne and his dear friend Sir Henry Wotton clearly speak to their time, though their having been arranged out of chronological order diminishes their value as dialogue. And there is real testamentary virtue in the verse chronicle, such as Abraham Cowley’s epic on the English Civil War, as well as in Britain’s Remembrancer, George Wither’s account of the 1625 London plague:

Friends fled each other, kinsmen stood aloof;
The son to come within his father’s roof
Presumed not; the mother was constrained
To let her child depart unentertained;
The love betwixt the husband and the wife
Was oft neglected for the love of life;
And many a one their promise falsified
Who vowed that nought but death should them divide.

Wither was a mediocre and, as he grew older, mad poet, but in his description of how crisis tears away at the social fabric, even his most wooden lines are redeemed by their evidentiary power. There is, then, some basis to Forché’s public-spirited proposition that poetry can be “a mode of reading rather than of writing, of readerly encounter with the literature of that-which-happened,” such that “its mode is evidentiary rather than representational—as evidentiary, in fact, as spilled blood.”

Yet even when the testimonial relationship between the poem and the event is unambiguous, there are limits to Forché’s willful reading, not least of which is the fact that a poem is not “spilled blood.” Reading the poem as evidence of a crime—or, for that matter, regarding youths dancing in a YouTube video as an assault on the Iranian state—is just as likely to land us on the side of the tyrant. Beyond that, many poems composed to mark a specific occasion are pure doggerel. William McGonagall, the nineteenth-century Scottish poet frequently cited as among the worst that English has to offer, was an incorrigible author of the occasional poem and could easily satisfy the editors’ definition of poetry of witness. He isn’t afforded space in this anthology, but there are many here whose struggles in life meet comparable struggles in language. Take, for example, Sir Roger L’Estrange’s fustian in praise of suffering for one’s monarch:

When once my prince affliction hath,
  Prosperity doth treason seem,
 And for to smooth so rough a path
  I can learn patience from him;
Now not to suffer shows no loyal heart—
When kings want ease, subjects must learn to smart.

Or else there’s Anne Askew’s “Ballad Written at Newgate,” from shortly before her execution in 1546:

Not oft use I to write
In prose nor yet in rhyme,
Yet will I show one sight
That I saw in my time.

I saw a royal throne
Where Justice should have sit,
But in her stead was one
Of moody cruel wit;

Absorbed was rightwisness
As of the raging flood;
Satan in his excess
Sucked up the guiltless blood.

Strange and askew, indeed. These lines speak to genuine grief and grievance, but they do so in flat allegory. Poetry of Witness is thick with poems of this ilk, accompanied by biographical notes that rival them in length, making for an unpleasant reading experience. More skillful verses, meanwhile, such as John Newton’s “Amazing Grace!”—published in 1779—are inspiring in part because they are not about any particular historical circumstance at all. This allows us to infuse them with new meaning—in effect, to identify with them, to see ourselves in the poem—as happened with Newton’s hymn in the twentieth century. What, then, do we gain by shoehorning poems into the “poetry of witness” rubric?

Robyn Creswell, in a review of Poetry of Witness for The New Yorker’s Page Turner blog, argues that Against Forgetting is “in some sense” an effort to create “an invented tradition,” that is, a way for the present to justify itself by rewriting the past. While accurate, Creswell’s assessment is overgenerous. An “invented tradition”—one example is the Scottish clan tartan, with its rigid rules—is typically more consistent than an inherited one, because practices accumulated over time and across space also accumulate variance. Poetry of Witness includes many poems with no discernible bearing on the martyrology the editors promote in their notes, so it has neither the sharp focus of an invented tradition nor, except in rare cases, the pertinence of a real one.

There are a great many poems early on in the collection whose only “victim” is the courtier who feels oppressed by his own proximity to power. Sir Thomas Wyatt, one of the most marvelous specimens the language has produced, laments his falling in and out of Henry VIII’s favor, “That whoso joins such kind of life to hold/ In prison joys, fettered with chains of gold.” And the Roman Catholic priest Robert Southwell, canonized in 1970, wrote some eight years before his execution in 1595:

A prince by birth, a prisoner by mishap;
From crown to cross, from throne to thrall I fell;
My right my ruth, my titles wrought my trap,
My weal my woe, my worldly heaven my hell.

These men faced tragedy in their lives, but they also understood the risks that privileges brought. Surely Wyatt knew the difference between “chains of gold” and those of iron, having experienced both. Yet the effect of mourning so many men of power in the book’s first 200 pages is like binge-watching Game of Thrones. It has the paradoxical consequence of de-individuating their experiences, effectively trivializing them, at the same time as it emphasizes the editors’ near-total disregard for the power these men wielded over the lives of others.

If Forché and Wu aim to keep our sights squarely on forms of political violence and injustice, then what accounts for their inattention to endemic poverty and wealth inequality—unquestionably modernity’s most pervasive and most overlooked form of political violence? We have at best the plaints of the rich man or the aging poet, often the same courtier, who finds he is no longer as attractive to the young ladies as he once was. Thus John Wilmot writes, in “The Disabled Debauchee”:

So, when my days of impotence approach,
And I’m by pox and wine’s unlucky chance
Forced from the pleasing billows of debauch,
On the dull shore of lazy temperance,
My pains at least some respite shall afford,
Whilst I behold the battles you maintain
When fleets of glasses sail about the board
From whose broadsides volleys of wit shall rain.

And Sir John Suckling:

To draw her out, and from her strength,
 I drew all batteries in,
And brought myself to lie at length
 As if no siege had been.

When I had done what man could do
 And thought the place mine own,
The enemy lay quiet too,
 And smiled at all was done.

These biting verses use military metaphors, yet the editors’ claim that poets like Suckling “sublimated their experience in songs addressed to women, preferring to speak of love rather than of war” approaches self-satire.

What we are being called upon to witness: an old man’s fear of death, a fop’s meditations on his waning sexual powers? These are authentic aspects of the human experience, to be sure, and are among the original subjects of lyric poetry, but they add confusion to the anthology’s focus on poets speaking truth to power. So does Forché’s introductory essay, titled “Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art,” which seeks to lend theoretical grounding and heft to the project. Forché turns to the likes of Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot, French-language philosophers who were among the last century’s best thinkers about the intersection of literature and ethics. In Forché’s formulation, witness “is neither martyrdom nor the saying of a juridical truth, but the owning of one’s infinite responsibility for the other one…. In the poetry of witness, the poem makes present to us the experience of the other, the poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation.” But this is a profound misreading of these thinkers’ work. For Levinas, responsibility is the default position of every relation. It’s not something you take ownership of, because it’s not something you can ever cast aside: my encounter with you is inherently responsive, whether I behave “responsibly” or not. For Blanchot, witnessing has nothing to do with testimony: all writing is a trace of existence, which is itself an involuntary process of “witnessing.” Stripped of Forché’s interpretation, these philosophers cannot admit a poetry of witness as she presents it.

The editors of Poetry of Witness are knowledgeable and unquestionably sincere in their belief that they are doing something essential not only for poetry, but also for our sense of ourselves in the world. The project was born of a genuine concern that we, as modern-day Americans, are too pampered to understand all the horror our species inflicts on one another. Thus Forché writes in the introduction to Against Forgetting: “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 people’s cities. The houses destroyed are other people’s houses.” Yes, but there are plenty of places in North America where the “war on drugs,” “war on crime” and “war on poverty” are not metaphors, and where drugs, crime and poverty fight back.

It is in this respect, then, that Poetry of Witness, besides being haphazard when it isn’t simply dull, is also morally corrosive. By directing our attention to the wrong side of history, it assures its readers that we are on the right side. In touting some of the bad things that happen, it also points to an invisible them as the perpetrators. As has been noted by Bernard Stiegler, one of Derrida’s most engaging students and himself no stranger to incarceration, “it is not by denouncing the they that one avoids the risk of falling into it, and perhaps the opposite is true, as is often seen in times of great reactivity.” Poetry, too, can wake us from self-satisfaction in the verdicts we place on history. It requires, however, a very different mode of reading if it is to do so.

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