Sunday, February 23, 2014


Many died.
Many survived.

They died because, for, instead of...
They lived because, for, despite, beyond...

This is the report from many disasters--- any disaster-- tragedy, war, catastrophe, atrocity.
We generate lists of names and places, numbers and statistics.

What do we say beyond the numbers?
What do we know beyond the news and  the obituaries?.
Who tells the story behind the reports?
Who builds memorials with bricks of words?
Who sings the requiems and  the elegies,  the accolades and the odes, the  laudations and  heroic hymns?

Through time, around the globe, individually and collectively, we have often found poetry to be the mortar that builds the monuments, hoists new flags, reminds us, informs us, challenges us, sustains us and raises us up.

Carolyn Forche anthologizes these memorials, these bricks of words, built by poets living in what she calls extremity. By the extreme, according to Duncan Wu, co-editor of  her newest book, Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500 - 2001, she means the following:

...experiences that are the result of societal injustice,  the depredations of the state, or sins of omission--specifically war, imprisonment, torture and political oppression of various kinds... 

She studies and collects the diverse poetry of witness of 145 international  poets, written in 30 languages in her first volume, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness.

While her first volume examines world poetry, her second and newest collection examines the poetry of witness written in English over the last 500 years.

In the following film, she talks about the concept of poetry of witness:

For more on her ideas  read  the article: Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art  .

Nelson Mandela, a man we know lived in the extreme, recognized and reviewed Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness :

Poetry cannot block a bullet or still a sjambok, but it can bear witness to brutality—thereby cultivating a flower in a graveyard. Carolyn Forché's Against Forgetting is itself a blow against tyranny, against prejudice, against injustice. It bears witness to the evil we would prefer to forget, but never can—and never should.
While Forche has collected the poetry of others, her own poetry also bears witness to the extreme.
Her collection, The Country Between Us lays bear her soul in El Salvador and calls us to journey with her beyond that place  to an awareness of the lives of others. 

Read her poem, The Colonel by clicking here. 

Poetry of Witness
Bearing witness, reminding us, making us look-- exposing us to that which often remains hidden or forgotten.

Poetry of Witness
Standing in hope in the face of danger, torture, death, evil-- hopelessness.

Poetry of Witness
Coming to terms with the evil and destruction we humans do-- reclaiming and collectively resisting in the extreme.

 In her poem The End and the Beginning, Wyslawa Szymborska reminds us 

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.
She also reminds us of the importance of remembering, witnessing --and poet-ing
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.
 To read Szymborska's complete poem click here.

I say that after every extreme-- after every event which takes away hope, after every act that makes us less than human-- someone must write a poem, to make us human again.

What have you witnessed in your life? In the world?
What is your story, your act, your poem of witness?

You may want to read my previous and related posts
Poetry of Resilience 
Poetry: A Place to Stand
Poetry in a Time of Pain

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Remember and reflect on a time you (or someone else) lived in the extreme- politically, personally, or professionally.

What do others need to know to redeem that time?
What do others need to  remember to insure the future?
What sustained you during this time?
What lessons are there in your experience that remind us all of our humanity and help us resist evil?

Write a poem of witness.

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