One of the graduating students in Lesley University’s low-residency MFA Program, Eileen Cleary, gave a moving talk on poems of witness last week. Examples ranged from Bruce Weigl’s “The Last Lie” to Tadeusz Rozewicz’s “Pigtails” to Yusef Komunyaaka’s “After Ferguson.” It has made me think about what a complicated topic this is, and I’m pondering two specific questions right now. One is that we use the term to refer to tragedies, not to celebratory, joyful, or ordinary events–an untroubled birth, the first spring beauties coming up through remnants of snow. The origins of the word witness seem to be legalistic from the beginning: testimony based on knowing, on having your wits about you. So it’s witness to a crime, to bad behavior, to tragedy. It laments injustice and gives voice to outrage and to those who can’t speak for themselves.
But the larger, more complicated question, has to do with point of view: where is the witness in relation to the events being described? Is the testimony firsthand or secondhand, is it grounded in direct observation or in empathy, in the imagination? In Bruce Weigl’s poem the speaker is an American soldier describing a fellow soldier’s casual violence–throwing a food canister hard at the forehead of one of the hungry children. Komunyaaka’s speaker is an American black man raging against racial injustice–we assume he’s felt it himself though he didn’t witness the Ferguson shooting firsthand. Rosewicz was a Polish poet whose mother had converted from Judaism to Catholicism. He and his brother both fought the Nazis as part of the Polish underground, and his brother was captured and executed. The anonymous speaker of his poem imagines the the lives of the girls and women who have left behind “clouds of dry hair.”
So the question I’m pondering is: what’s our relationship to events that move us from a distance: Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Ferguson and all its shameful company if we’re white, a drowned Syrian child on a Greek beach, gays and lesbians targeted at a Florida nightclub. Not acts of god, but of human rage and savagery. What ground do we have to stand on and speak from that will make us more than sensationalists, voyeurs, co-opters, poachers? Shared humanity–and inhumanity? What poems come to mind? Have you written poems you consider poems of witness?