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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 is memorable, and we all know Robert Frost’s comment that poetry is what gets left out in a translation. However effective the translation, it is apt to sound like poetry without being it, and to look poetic without being memorable; just as classical Chinese poetry, in English, has acquired a new “Chinese” poetic status which soon begins to sound familiar. This may be what Carolyn Forché has in mind in speaking of these poems being as much “about” language as other sorts of poem are—for example the poems originally in English that are also in her anthology. A translated poem gives the impression of seeking to make itself at home in a new and unfamiliar tongue.

Hence when one reads translations one rarely feels the immediacy, which, as with a skater taking the ice, marks success in a native poem. Auden said that even the gender rhymes he was made to memorize when learning Latin at school could do this sometimes, just as a pop song can, or the kinds of jingle which the Opies, in their book on children’s poetics, collected from the playground.1 “Catch a Perry Como/Wash him in some Omo/Hang him on the line to dry” has, as Philip Larkin put it, no very obvious qualifications for immortality; and yet once heard never forgotten. The young Auden, himself a schoolmaster, knew this very well, and knew how children rhyme by instinct. Working on an assignment to publicize the work of the Post Office he produced comparable rhymes with incomparable facility.

This is the Night Mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door

As poetry, that has a strong affinity with the famous “September 1, 1939,” which of course has a place in this anthology, a more than honorable one. In one sense “September 1, 1939” is an example of the romance that poetry can hurtle into existence, like the Night Mail crossing the Border, and that is by no means absent from the later poem, giving it a superb fluency which some, including the poet himself, came later to find glib. “All poetry can be used as magic,” he once warned us, and therefore can be part of

The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky…

Romance and magic are suspect, for, as the poem goes on,

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Auden famously came to dislike that last line, and changed it into “We must love one another and die,” which is true too, and less imperiously so. Schoolmasterishness, telling the reader what to think and to feel, was in one way a magic game that Auden’s poetry played; and though what he said was always felt and always genuine, he came increasingly to distrust, in his own poetry or anywhere else, what he called “the preacher’s loose immodest tone.” It could lend itself to the lie of authority. Carolyn Forché includes another and briefer masterpiece of Auden which is very different in tone—withdrawn, diagnostic, and absolutely devastating—the “Epitaph on a Tyrant.”

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable sen- ators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little chil- dren died in the streets.

Again poetry is itself suspect, because a simple version of it, with its own impulse toward “perfection,” is part of a tyrant’s appeal. No doubt Auden had Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin in mind, but the crushing final line is in fact an ironic reversal of the contemporary epitaph on a good sixteenth-century monarch, the Dutch William the Silent, for whom when he died “the little children cried in the streets.”

Next to Auden are some poems of the young Spaniard Miguel Hernández, who fought and wrote poems for the Republican cause in the civil war. Arrested in 1939 and sent to a concentration camp, he escaped, was recaptured, sentenced to death, reprieved, and died of tuberculosis contracted in prison, aged thirty-one. So heroic a life, living and dying for a cause, might seem to make writing poetry about it almost superfluous, but it is not the cause—and its necessary romance—that animate his warmest, most tender, and delicate poems, but intimacies of food, married love, domesticity, surviving in solitude and bearing witness in its total desolation.

I go on in the dark, lit from within; does day exist?
Is this my grave? or the womb of my mother.

Hernández in his mother tongue is a real poet. Here he is a witness poet, in spite of good translation, and the two in the context are inevitably different things. It is the form and content of poetry that validate what we know of him, and what we can perceive in it. That even makes the words all the more moving, as if their incompleteness, their lack of poetry’s own “perfection,” spoke for the emptiness out of which they came, and the living life they nonetheless managed to impart to it.

Causes die, but the human spirit, or at least its impulse to poetry, does not. Indeed causes may do worse than die: they may reveal they were not worth fighting for anyway, or not worth writing poems for, unless it is the actual quality of the poetry which may go some way toward validating them in time. Auden’s poem “Spain,” giving its support for the same cause as Hernández in the civil war, is a brilliant and deliberately weighty tour de force, but for all its skills and felicities it is not a moving poem, and it is rightly not included here. Auden virtually disowned it later on, and especially the “party” line in it which accepted guilt for “the necessary murder.” It moves us now only insofar as it expresses the hopes and illusions of a generation which felt them with fervor.

Spain” is historically significant, rather than witness-bearing; and the reverse is true of poems by the young Hungarian Miklós Radnóti. No celebrant of a cause as Hernández was, although he and his poems were persecuted by the fascist-style Hungarian government, he was sent to forced labor in Hitler’s war and shot near the end of it when he was of no more use. His body was exhumed from a mass grave in 1946, and his widow, going through his pockets, found his last poems in them on small scraps of paper—a letter in verse to her, a poem on their forced march, an eclogue in the camp barracks, waiting for “a womanly word, for a fate free and human.”

Lonely the vigil I’m keeping;
in my mouth I taste that half- smoked cigarette, not your
kisses, and dreams won’t come, no sleep will come to relieve me,
since I can face neither death nor a life any longer without you.

Emery George’s translation, reproducing the classic hexameters of the original, movingly suggests the classic and eternal sorrows of separation by war, from Andromache’s day to ours, and the longing of a male regimented world to be human and to be at home. Radnóti’s poems, and the knowledge of what was to come for him at the end of the long march, give one a terrible lump in the throat.

Yet more so, and inevitably, do those poems that commemorate the Holocaust, the Hebrew Shoah. Genocidal persecution is the worst, as it is the deepest, of all witness themes; but though Carolyn Forché begins her anthology with the Armenian genocide of the First World War, and includes at a later point the poems of the Holocaust, she does not give that dire theme an overwhelming prominence. She gives good representation to the soldier poets—Trakl, Owen, Graves, Montale, Günter Eich, Alan Dugan, Louis Simpson—e.e. cummings (“i sing of Olaf glad and big”), Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” Pasternak’s “Hamlet,” Mandelstam’s “Stalin Epigram.” And she has carried her choice to poets of the civil rights movement, to protest and testament in South America, in Africa, China, Korea, and Vietnam.

Yet it is the Holocaust and its greatest poet, Paul Celan, that are bound to be at the center of things—he is, as a poet, both witness and as it were maestro of those terrible events: a poet for all languages, and yet a poet who could only have written his poems in German, the language of the annihilators. Celan was born in a Jewish enclave of Romania, and grew up speaking Romanian and French; but his mother, whom he loved, loved German, and the German classics she read to him as a child. As with so many other Western Jews, German high culture and the language of Goethe seemed home to her. Judged unfit to work, she was shot in the nape of the neck and her husband died of typhus. Their son escaped to become a great poet, but he never got over it. He married and had a child and taught in France as a French citizen, but drowned himself in the Seine at the age of forty-nine.

Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau. “this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue / he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true.” In a ghastly sense these lines, recurring over and over in Celan’s terrifying poem “Todesfuge“—“Death Fugue”—are as memorable as a children’s rhyme, or the jingles that Auden spoke of. But more than that, Death as a Master from Germany, and master of the genocidal Death fugue, is a colleague of J.S. Bach, that other great “Master” from German culture. This is never hinted in the poem, or by Celan himself: the very lack of a hint makes its obviousness even more frightful, more schrecklich. Celan was right that such a poem could only be written in German, the language of those who were its masters.

And yet not so; for it is the poet, Celan himself, who is the real master—not out of Germany, but of the German language. Such a masterpiece cannot help having the mastery of what it describes. Like the children’s rhyme, it cannot help exulting in itself, its assertiveness of the tongue. And it was for this reason that the German Jewish philosopher Adorno wrote with conviction that to write poetry after Auschwitz “ist barbarisch“—is barbaric—because poetry cannot help being and celebrating itself. Its authentic voice purges even a death camp; and such a purgation of the Holocaust, even by the finest poetry, is unforgivable.

Adorno’s argument is in exact opposition to the spirit in which Carolyn Forché has composed her anthology. I think she, and not he, is right, if only because so many of her poets suffered everything, and yet found from it the impulse to write, to be themselves, as poets, in spite of all—and to leave for us the testamentary record in their poetry. It is ourselves, the public and the consumer, who might be targeted by Adorno’s accusation, rather than the poets. R. P. Blackmur shrewdly observed that the best poetry not only “expresses the matter in hand but adds to the sum of available reality.” The consumer can open himself to the reality of the achieved poem rather than to what it is saying. Celan seems to have been sickened by the popularity of “Death Fugue” in Germany, and to have refused to let it be anthologized. Its public has, as it were, discovered a new and wonderful German thing, a marvelous addition to their language and culture, and it could occupy the place of emptiness, despair, and guilt. The “black milk” which the camp victims drank daily has become a new and vibrant phrase.

It is this absoluteness of poetry that is distrusted intellectually today, even by poets themselves. The English poet Geoffrey Hill has spoken in his poetry of “the tongue’s atrocities,” and in his own moving poem (not anthologized here) on a small death camp victim, has confessed that it cannot help being written less for her than for “myself.” He distrusts the language of poetry because it is its own thing; and in the care with which he points this out he tries to make it something else. The same impulse, oddly enough, may have been present to Wallace Stevens, whose language in his poems sought more and more to avoid poetic completeness. And the same instinct to try to make poetry out of forgettable words rather than memorable speech seems to lie behind the poetry of John Ashbery. Perhaps the feeling behind Adorno’s word has generalized to a point where our contemporary poetry is engaged primarily in distrusting itself, and in defeating its own traditional powers.

But that is not the feeling produced by the poets in this anthology. Even where translation had robbed their speech of memorability, it survives as testament. In the case of John Felstiner’s inspired translation of “Death Fugue” it survives as a great deal more. Felstiner, who has also written the best essay on the poem, has managed not only to put its tone and rhythms exactly into English, but has used the nightmare fugal repetitions to retain the German as well, glossed by what has gone before.2

he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite
your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air
there you won’t lie too cramped
He shouts jab this earth deeper you lot you others sing up and play…
He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Deutsch- land

So the ending of the fugue can be left in its own language.

der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Shulamith

In the nightmarish unforgettable rhyme children’s voices can almost be heard, as in jingles from the playground. It is no wonder perhaps that a great poet like Celan should have sought to escape from his own poem as he did, and yet its anonymity already seems absolute. But Celan is the most varied and complex of poets, as is shown in Michael Hamburger’s fine selection and translation,3 and he is probably the greatest poet represented in this anthology. It is sad that Yvan Goll, also represented here and a fine poet who wrote in both French and German, became posthumously involved in a controversy when his widow accused Celan of plagiarizing some of his poems, even the famous phrase Schwarze Milch—“black milk”—which seems, according to Felstiner, to have originated much further back in the vocabulary of poetry—once again like a playground rhyme. The imputation much upset poor Celan, though there is no evidence that it caused his suicide. His mother’s death had already doomed him.

There is a sense in which poetry cannot help purging itself from history and becoming, like the song of the girl in Wordsworth’s cornfield, a matter of “old unhappy far-off things.” But an anthology like this, and as well chosen as this, makes all such things very present to us: present as poetry and present as witness and testament. Poetry works by reversal; a poem like Celan’s cannot help also being a triumph poem, a triumph of art; and yet such a reversal only makes us more aware, in the end, not just of the poem, but of the whole world outside the poetry. A “perfect” poem cannot in fact arrest us at the moment of its own perfection, but drives us out into contemplation of the whole human scene.

The imperfect poet and his perfect poem are one and the same; nor is it true, as Mallarmé wrote of Poe, that eternity changes him into his real being. He must, and does, remain with us as himself. Critics in England have recently professed to be scandalized by the shabby facts about the great and popular poet Philip Larkin, as revealed in his recently published letters and biography, and have sought to separate wonderful poems from unworthy man. It can’t be done. Poets must bear witness against themselves, as they bear witness to what we do to one another.

  1. 1

    Iona and Peter Opie, The Lore and Language of school Children (Oxford University Press, 1959).

  2. 2

    John Felstiner, “Translating Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’: Rhythm and Repetition as Metaphor,” in Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the ‘Final Solution,’ edited by Saul Friedlander (Harvard University Press, 1992).

  3. 3

    Persea Books, 1989.

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