Night Mail

Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness

edited and with an introduction by Carolyn Forché
Norton, 812 pp., $35.00

This is a remarkable book. Not only in itself and for the poems it contains, but for the ideas that lie behind their selection as an anthology. Poetry has been called “memorable speech”: a definition quoted by the young W. H. Auden in his preface to an anthology he helped to edit in the Twenties called The Poet’s Tongue. And if the speech of poetry is memorable, in a way that ordinary speech is not, should what the poem is saying not be memorable too?

So far so good, but there are certain drawbacks. The words of poetry are, as everyone knows, not the same as their meaning. Or rather their language may make them memorable as poetry without itself having any claims to memorability at all. An anthology, Against Forgetting, has poems to make us remember what they contain, and what they commemorate, the events to which they are bearing witness. It is their contents we should, and are to, remember. A discrepancy may inevitably arise here between the words of the poem and what it is saying. If the words themselves are not memorable, will the contents nonetheless be so?

Let us hope they are. A terrible message—about war, about suffering, about the horrors of this century—may be more memorable just because it is put in the form of poetry—never mind whether the words in which the message comes are in themselves “memorable speech.” Herself a poet, Carolyn Forché tells us in her arresting introduction that when she worked as a human rights activist in Lebanon and South Africa and the occupied West Bank, “Something happened along the way to the introspective poet I had been.”

My new work seemed controversial to my American contemporaries, who argued against its “subject matter,” or against the right of a North American to contemplate such issues in her work, or against any mixing of what they saw as the mutually exclusive realms of the personal and the political. Like many other poets, I felt that I had no real choice regarding the impulse of my poems, and had only to wait, in meditative expectancy. In attempting to come to terms with the question of poetry and politics, I turned to the work of Anna Akhmatova, Yannis Ritsos, Paul Celan, Federico García Lorca, Nazim Hikmet, and others. I began collecting their work, and soon found myself a repository of what began to be called “the poetry of witness.” In thinking about these poems, I realized that the arguments about poetry and politics had been too narrowly defined. Regardless of “subject matter,” these poems bear the trace of extremity within them, and they are, as such, evidence of what occurred. They are also poems which are as much “about” language as are poems that have no subject other than language itself.

Those poets mentioned, and many more, are to be found in Against Forgetting in translation, and very impressive their works are. Yet language does have its effect on what…

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