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.