Poetry of Witness

July 4, 2016

786699._UY475_SS475_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?

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  • Reply Pat Collins July 4, 2016 at 11:00 am

    Excellent, thought-provoking post, Sharon. I will be more sensitive to POV in poems of witness. My own poems of witness have been of personal tragedies.

  • Reply eileen cleary July 4, 2016 at 11:48 am

    This is not yet a complete response but here are some beginning thoughts. Testifying to an event does not indicate that a person must have been present during a crime, war or other occurrence. Just to affirm that it happened. For instance, Martha Collins was not yet born when her father witnessed a lynching, yet she testifies to it in Blue Front. I believe this comes from the ancestral pain archived in family interactions . For instance, Collins hears of this lynching while growing up or even as an adult, and carries the pain of it. A collateral witness. There is a pain carried by all of us when any one of us is harmed. We are social beings. But in Colllins’ case, there is a familial link to the pain–and to the shame, horror, confusion, shock that comes with it. In Komunyakaa ‘s poem, he wasn’t a direct witness, but he’s heard this story with substitute settings and names, his entire life. He carries the ancestral pain of it. A modern African American may never have witnessed slavery, but I would expect any member of that community to possess a personal and authentic perspective on it.

    If poems are testimony, they become evidence. This is why Carolyn Forché refers to poetry of witness as being as “evidentiary as spilled blood.” (Against Forgetting, 46)

    A poem of witness may serve as crucial documentation that suffering has occurred, or even that a person has existed. Such is the case with the poem “Legend of Lilga” (Against Forgetting 473), in which Sarah Kirsch writes the story of a girl gassed in the concentration camps. “Other witnesses said on her way she had/smiled at everyone (sic) combed her hair with her fingers /was immediately gassed.” In this case, the writing is a document that testifies to the world that an otherwise unknown life has passed, and it has not gone un-noticed.

    Also, with media turned on every event, we develop a traumatic memory of them, even when we weren’t present. I DO know examples of poems which I feel are exploitive , and wonder how to reflect on them. For instance, I think a poem that laments and mourns the loss of Trevor Martin because the author has shed tears and wants to do what he can to protest absurd and preventable tragedy, is different than a poem that describes a gun used to kill a teen and the killer’s desire to sell it. What is the point of the second poem if it is n0t to sensationalize and capitalize on loss? To put oneself in the limelight as opposed to putting issues in the spotlight are entirely different.

    I expect numerous and sincere responses to the Pulse nightclub tragedy. I hope some of them will focus on a specific life lost and honor it, record it. Trauma is perceived in fragmented intelligence until the unfathomable is explored in words, the mysterious unlocked in letters and the experience no longer beyond language. I hope some of the writing to come of the Orlando event gives words to what people feel, in order to help relieve the pain.

    I’m just now thinking of a poem in which Vehan Tekeyan describes the Turkish genocide of two million Armenians. Tekeyan uses the narrative of a tourist who tells the story of a woman who lived through the massacre, in his poem “The Dance.”(Against Forgetting58) He tells the reader about “corpses piled high as trees,” women being raped and beaten and people dying next to survivors. Then, he gives the response to the killings as tourist overhears the woman ask, “How can I dig out my eyes?” It is an ugly scene to be sure, but it stands as an important document and one that caused me to research and study the history of the event. In this way, I am one more person who will never forget. In some way, one person’s story lives on. The tourist in the poem, the dancing women, have people in the world today, nearly 100 years later, who pray for them and carry their existence in their thoughts. People who know they existed and still exist.

  • Reply eileen cleary July 4, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    *trayvon martin* was autocorrected but in error

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet July 7, 2016 at 12:30 pm

      Eileen, your response is as powerful as your original response, and you make a number of good points about the differences between poems of empathy and poems of exploitation. And what you say about seeing events in our imaginations whether or not we’ve seen them firsthand is central–we put ourselves in place of the other. I knew a Polish woman born after WW II who said she sometimes dreamed she was a Jewish child trying to hide, which seems like a perfect example of what you’re describing. When I mourn Hiroshima, I think “we” shouldn’t have done that, just as I do about the genocide of American Indians, slavery, dozens of other appalling acts. I mean “we whites, we Americans, we thieves, murderers, aggressors.” It’s gut level, that sense of having been part of a horrible wrong–is that historical memory? Then how much of that is lost as generations know less and less history? You raise such important, provocative issues.

  • Reply Kathleen Flenniken July 7, 2016 at 12:01 am

    This is such a thoughtful and useful note, Eileen. I am grateful for it. I wish I could have heard your presentation!

    Sharon, you asked about examples of poetry of witness. For years I awaited the reissue of Charles Reznikoff’s project, “Testimony: The United States (1885-1915): Recitative,” and now it’s here. As Charles Simic describes it (in a review in the NYRB: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2015/08/25/brutal-american-epic-reznikoff-testimony/) “I know of nothing like it in literature. Based on thousands of pages of court records spanning three decades around the turn of the twentieth century, Testimony is a compilation of case summaries, a sequence of self-contained pieces. These “recitatives,” as he called them, vary in length between five and over two hundred lines, and are divided into sections according to geographical region and subject matter (Social Life, Domestic Scenes, Machine Age, Negroes, Children, Railroads, Chinese, Thefts and Thieves, etc.). They tell the stories of some five hundred court cases from all over this country and deal with a broad segment of the American population, urban and rural.”

    Often these pieces are cruel—fate, drunks, children, machines, love: all can be cruel—and violent, terrible, sad. And yet… these victims and witnesses are lifted up by this act of remembering and I am (somehow) never overwhelmed by them because they honor their subjects, pluck them out of nonexistence. The words belong to the witnesses; Reznikoff shapes them, to be sure, he tunes them, but he doesn’t speak on top of them—the voices are there. There is enormous dignity to be found in the voices of the forgotten.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet July 7, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    Kathleen, I agree that the Reznikoff–which you first told me about–is powerful, in large part because he lets the voices speak for themselves. It makes me think of the home page for Yad Vashem’s online site. Yad Vashem is the memorial for Jews killed in the Holocaust, where they collect the names of the dead and other information. That page features beautiful photographs of children and adults, parents and children, ceremonies and daily life: a father tossing his young daughter in the air, a couple gazing at each other on their wedding day, a woman baking bread. It’s anyone’s family album, and at first I smiled as I always do at similar photos. Then I realized that not only was everyone in those pictures dead, but that they were victims of the largest mass murder in human history. Brought me to my knees.

  • Reply Frances Donovan July 7, 2016 at 3:42 pm

    I find poems of witness very moving but often find myself unable to write about tragic events when they happen. I admire other poets’ ability to speak about these events when they are still fresh in the collective consciousness. For myself, find that I have to process trauma and suffering on a preverbal level before I can write about it in poetry. At the age of 42, I’m just beginning to write in a more concrete way about things that happened to me as a child. And even now I tend to circle around the thing itself rather than describing it directly — “touching the shark,” as one of my teachers calls it. She had a student who was writing a poem about swimming with sharks but couldn’t seem to write the moment of touching the shark itself.

    You note that poems of witness do not necessarily have to describe traumatic events. I find it much easier to write about joyful events like falling in love or — as you suggested — seeing the first snowdrops appear at the end of winter.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet July 7, 2016 at 4:42 pm

    I like the “touching the shark” image. And I don’t think powerful poetry needs to be directly about biographical subject matter at all. I mostly prefer feeling the emotions between the lines, as in Bishop. Or Dickinson: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” Confessional is usually my least favorite mode. There’s a big difference for me when it portrays someone else’s suffering–incredibly powerful when it’s well done, and exploitative when it’s not because then it’s really about the speaker: “look how empathetic and understanding I am.” For me the defining characteristic is craft–whether or not the poet has enough to transform the subject and make it art. Bishop does, Plath does–in the poems but not The Bell Jar. (The subject matter might be moving, but I don’t think the book itself is. The crucial step is the transformation–otherwise, it’s not art.) Most of Sexton’s poetry is not for me, because she simply doesn’t have the level of craft required. George Herbert does. Celan does. The first time I read Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Colonel,” I was overwhelmed by the powerful imagery, and by the story’s careful telling. By the third I was a little squeamish–not about the ears, but about the way they and not the ethical issues seem the point of the poem: “You won’t believe who I had dinner with, and you won’t believe what he did” feels more prominent to me than the atrocities themselves. What are the speaker’s feelings, apart from shock? On the other hand, Adam Zagajewski’s poem “The Swallows of Auschwitz,” brings me to tears with its modesty and quiet question:

    In the barracks’ quiet,
    In the silence of a summer Sunday,
    the swallows’ shrill cry.

    Is this really all that’s left
    of human speech?

    As for the many pleasures of life: I don’t think you can separate tragedy from comedy, feel or understand one without the other. So when you’re writing about snowdrops you’re inevitably writing about transience and loss, not just the pleasures of spring and the new–we know it can’t stay, as in Frost’s ode/lament for autumn, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” The writers and artists who touch me most deeply speak out of that bittersweet wholeness.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet July 7, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    And what would you say about Jericho Brown’s poem “Bullet Points” in the context of our discussion: https://www.buzzfeed.com/jerichobrown/poem-bullet-points-by-jericho-brown?utm_term=.ada22Rpybz#.ysZyyqL10M

  • Reply eileen cleary July 7, 2016 at 11:00 pm

    Brown’s poem reminds me of the dead domestic abuse victims who wrote, “If you find me dead, he did it.” This is a poem that witnesses the speaker and his justifiable fear of being murdered because he’s a person of color. A very intense and immediate fear. Fear based on truth and current events, the same kind of horrible awareness a person might have if houses in a row start catching fire, mine’s (I’m) next. I think this terror given voice by a person of color a would be ridiculous and less than authentic if written by me, because this poem writes what it is like to be a person of color watching other people who look like him being murdered. Totally needs to be written by a person who can testify to that, rather than imagine it. I think this poem really addresses the trauma of being endangered and unprotected. And God forbid. Perhaps this poem makes him feel some level of protection-at least its here to prove if anyone hurts him, he had no desire to die, no desire for suicide by cop, he came in peace.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet July 10, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    MIKLOS RADNOTI’S Death March.
    I want to add a poem here that seems to me the most intense and immediate that poetry of witness can be. The poet Ed Hirsch is the one who introduced me to Miklos Radnoti’s poetry and story. Radnoti was a Hungarian poet, born Jewish but not religious. That of course didn’t matter to the Nazis, and Radnoti was drafted into a labor battalion during World War II. These battalions were for those considered “unfit” to serve in the regular military: Jews, converts, gypsies, homosexuals, political activists. The battalions actually saved some young men from being sent to concentration camps, but many in them were sent to harsh labor camps and treated horribly by Hungarian and German Nazis. They were starved, beaten, tortured, murdered. Radnoti kept writing poems throughout his time in these battalions, even though he could have been murdered simply for being caught with pencil and paper. He was in a camp in Bor, Yugoslavia, in late 1944 when the Reich began to collapse. Guards told the captives they were taking them back to Hungary to be released, but their orders were to take them to work camps in German. By then all of the men were in terrible shape. Radnoti was ill, starving, in pain from ill-fitting wooden shoes. Those who couldn’t keep up were shot along the way–for stopping to piss by the side of the road, for falling down. Radnoti saw a good friend murdered this way. According to one witness, Radnoti was badly beaten by a guard for his “incessant scribbling.” Guards stopped at least twice at hospitals to leave their prisoners there. They were told the hospitals were “Judenfrei”–Jew-free–and turned away. Someone said, “Why don’t you just take them into the forest and shoot them,” so the guards finally did just that. Eighteen months after the war ended, a mass grave was found and the bodies exhumed. Among them was Radnoti’s. His last poems were found in his coat pockets, wrapped to protect them against the elements, and instructions for what to do with them written in five languages. The poems are labeled “postcards,” and written on that march, the last one a few days before his death. The German translates as “That one is still moving.” I don’t know a more profound image of what poetry can be than this: words brought up out of the ground in a dead man’s pockets.

    Postcard 4

    I fell next to him. His body rolled over.
    It was tight as a string before it snaps.
    Shot in the back of the head- -“This is how
    you’ll end. Just lie quietly,” I said to myself.
    Patience flowers into death now.
    “Der springt noch auf,” I heard above me.
    Dark filthy blood was drying on my ear.

  • Reply Robbie Gamble July 11, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    This is such a good conversation, and I’m not sure exactly where to jump in. The question, what’s our relationship to events that move us from a distance, is such a tricky one for poets. I’m thinking about the weeks following the 9/11 event, when online chats were flooded with lots of earnest and awkward poems where people were trying to come to grips with the incomprehensible tragedy, lots of images of angels rising from the ashes of the World Trade Center site. I remember encountering Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” on the last page of the New Yorker’s first post-9/11 issue, and feeling some sense of relief or gratitude that the poet was able to speak, obliquely but powerfully, to the sense of horror and also the preciousness of human existence all at once; it was the perfect voice for that moment. Other poets including Wislawa Szymborska and Martin Espada also wrote powerful, more direct pieces about the event (the titles of their poems escape me right now). But these are hard to do well. One of the difficulties of the information age is that we have instant access to so much imagery, a black man bleeding out in his car, for example, that it’s easy to assume we have some kind of intimate experience of an event, when we don’t really; for me these images stir empathy, but I also feel like a voyeur all at once. I need for poetry to do more than say “Can you believe this just happened?” or “I feel just terrible about this” when regarding horrific events from a distance. Poets who are able to leave some things unsaid, or linger on complex ambiguities of being human in unimaginable circumstances, are the voices I find most compelling. The poets that Eileen Cleary presented in her amazing seminar, including Bruce Weigl, Jeremy Cronin, Bonita Lee Penn, Yusef Komunyakaa and others, all do this so well, and we can all learn from them.
    The other thing I find myself thinking about right now, is how poetry is diametrically opposed to the urgency of the 24-hour news cycle, the feeling that we have to say something, anything, right now. Poems take time to find their center of gravity, the right voice. I remember when my brother died, I felt tremendous internal pressure to say something, write something to encapsulate his life and make sense of his sudden passing, but I could find no words. Weeks later, I was driving along a highway somewhere, and words suddenly came to me, and I was able to write a piece that brought him into focus in a way that was a gift to all of us who were grieving him, friends and family. I imagine it will be some time before the right words will come to someone to write with wisdom and clarity about, say, the mass shooting in Orlando, or the drowned Syrian boy. If and when those words become public, I will be grateful for them, and for the vision and artistry of the poet who writes them. These days I hunger for poetry, not punditry.

  • Reply eileen cleary July 11, 2016 at 8:31 pm

    Robbie, your words about the time between trauma and finding words to approach understanding speak to that space of shock and the fragmented self confronting it. Some of what I write has taken 30 years or more to write. This space of finding words for it, allowing trauma into the conscious and rational mind, is fascinating. I’d be interested to see a brain scan of someone who couldn’t talk in depth about a tragedy they suffered before and after they read words someone else wrote. I wonder if giving words to something, allows more words to be found for it. I, too, think poetry’s reach
    is what’s needed to touch the core of the issue, and punditry-well as you say, no hunger for it, no place for it when we are mutilated.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet July 11, 2016 at 10:34 pm

    Robbie, your comment is so full of insights and thoughtfulness that it teaches me a lot. I’m especially struck by “I need for poetry to do more than say ‘This just happened.'” Exactly, and “These days I hunger for poetry, not punditry.” WC Williams again: “It is hard to get the news from poetry [because it takes time and effort], but men die every day for lack of what is found there.” And Eileen: yes, poetry’s reach, its depth, the time it takes, the listening. Including listening to our own thoughts–just what Robbie describes in the wake of his brother’s death. I find exactly the same thing is true for me. Imagine if all the news media went quiet for a week, if everyone turned off their phones, radios, tvs. Time to think and feel–we seem to have built a world designed to avoid that.

  • Reply Frances J Donovan July 12, 2016 at 11:51 am

    This IS a great conversation. I’m glad to have finally found a group of thoughtful people with whom to discuss literature and social issues — all it took was enrolling in an IRL MFA program.

    I’m not going to be able to address all of the points here, but I wanted to respond to a few:

    Sharon, I see your point about confessional poetry, and also about craft. It’s been more than 20 years since I picked up Plath, Sexton, and Bishop, and I can appreciate them all in a different way. When I was younger I responded best to the wild expression of Sexton’s work — and I think it still attracts me. It’s one of my central challenges as a poet: walking the line between craftsmanship and free expression. The gap between the worlds of poetry slams and literary circles illustrates that dichotomy.

    Regarding the important point that witness doesn’t have to involve only the self. I struggle with how to tell other people’s stories without co-opting them, though. And the message over and over again I hear from other writers is that your own story deserves to be told. See my comment above in response to Eileen Cleary’s comments.

    Speaking out about current events IS also important. I think I prefer the sideways approach of poetry. It feels safer to me somehow, perhaps because so many of my contemporaries say that don’t understand poetry. Its encoded nature creates a boundary between me and the whole of the Internet.

    Jericho Brown’s poem (linked above) is a powerful piece. It skirts the line between confessional poetry and poetry of witness — he is speaking about these events from the context of his own life but also expressing his personal feelings and thoughts about them. Maybe I need a better definition of confessional poetry.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet July 12, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    I think the issue in finding a way to write about someone else’s experience is discovering in what way it’s your story. When I tried writing about my friend Dick Blessing’s death at 42, I couldn’t do it because it felt exploitative. Ten years later it became a poem I didn’t expect–with me as the listener as he described almost dying of a brain tumor (he lived another year after that). As for craft and “free” expression–I don’t think any art is free in the sense of unbounded, unshaped, undefined. It’s too bad we got stuck with the phrase “free verse,” because because free verse requires as much attention to form as a sonnet or villanelle–but the poet has to invent the form along with the content. I think form frees creativity. I took dance lessons when I was a kid, from a very demanding teacher who had studied modern dance in NYC. Even at five, we did 45 minutes of technique to begin the class. Then we had a break, lay on the floor and closed our eyes, piano playing very softly in the background. Our teacher started to tell a story and encouraged us, if we felt like it, to dance what we were feeling. This was the creative part of the class. But of course when we got up and danced, we drew on all the technique we’d been working on earlier. So for me, craft and creativity have always been inseparable. I think the best poetry slams are very crafted–but it’s a very different form from poetry on the page.

  • Reply Frances J Donovan July 13, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    I suppose the difficulty I find then is not so much with form or craft as it is with the inner critic and the desire to do it perfectly the very first time. I’m taking Creativity and the Unconscious Mind as my IS course and I find it’s helping with that. Your point about boning up on technique before doing the improvisation rings true. I’ve been humbled lately to see how much more technique I need to study and to improve upon.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet July 13, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    Yes, we all have to forget about perfection and just play. Find ways to get past all the censors. I think traditional forms help you do that, because you’re concentrating so hard on it that all kinds of images come in from peripheral vision, like shy animals that won’t step out until you look away from them. And having a container, the shape of the poem, makes it safer for the emotions to come out–you have something to pour them into so they aren’t as scary, they don’t just splatter all over the page. I’ve had students write about subjects they’d never intended to–incest, for example, beatings–when they were just learning to write in forms.

  • Reply eileen cleary July 15, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    Sharon, yours is a most beautiful way to describe the use of form. Encapsulating so much of what we all think about form, as well as blocking and censoring.

  • Reply Grace Schulman June 3, 2020 at 10:59 am

    Thanks, Sharon. All other comments fail me, wordless before a maimed world. Grace

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 3, 2020 at 11:05 am

    Me too, Grace. I think of Adam Zagajewski’s poem “How to Praise the Mutilated World,” but right now I can’t. It’s good to hear from you.

  • Reply Grace Schulman June 3, 2020 at 11:50 am

    Sharon, words came back. For two nights running I heard from my window on University Place (you’ve been there), screams, shouts, sirens, helicopters, broken glass, fire, and saw a cop car smashed, a man injured left lying on the ground. I remember the Sixties, standing on that same corner with my picket, chanting with the group, “We Don’t Want Your Fucking War!” But that was the Sixties, and the goals were clear: that is, here there were two distinct groups: the peaceful protestors and the outside agitators. The glass breakers, the fire setters, were not the protesters but criminals who couldn’t care less what the protests were about. Reform, I wanted to shout. “We Don’t Want Your Fucking Injustice.”

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