Although some of Carolyn Forché’s observations were compelling [“Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art,” May 2011], in the end her idea of “witness” struck me as yet another call for poetry to do something, and that poetry of witness requires appropriate credentials, namely some overwhelming historical-political tragic backstory. Under editorial questioning, Forché conceded that Elizabeth Bishop’s confrontations with a moose on the road, or a fish at the end of her line, could constitute opportunities to witness “radical otherness,” but I doubt Forché’s sincerity, since this would appear to undermine the rest of her essay. If a moose and a fish are ok, then isn’t anything an occasion for witness? If so, how is witnessing different from the act of writing any poem? If this is the case, I’d say Emily Dickinson did more “witnessing” out her own back door than any other poet did throughout the entire bloody, slave-driving, colony-exploiting nineteenth century.
I also dispute Forché’s implication that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are unique in regards to villainy and horror (and their corresponding special need for “witness”). To be sure, technology has made genocide much more ruthlessly efficient. But Pharaoh, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and the Spanish conquistadors all did pretty thorough jobs of exterminating or enslaving entire populations. The terror expressed by Irish monks at the thought of another Viking raid would be hard to surpass a thousand years later. Horrible as it was, there was nothing new about what happened in El Salvador in the eighties. Or what’s happening now in many places.
When Forché generously allows that “witness is not demanded of every poet,” I was grateful if only because I feared the alternative. But really, the only thing demanded of any poet is for her to write poems. Soon after reading Forché’s piece, I ran across a speech given by Allen Tate in 1950 called “To Whom Is the Poet Responsible?”:
I confess that the political responsibility of poets bores me; I am discussing it because it irritates me more than it bores me. It irritates me because the poet has a great responsibility of his own: it is the responsibility to be a poet, to write poems, and not to gad about using the rumor of his verse, as I am now doing, as the excuse to appear on platforms and to view with alarm. I have a deep, unbecoming suspicion of such talking poets: whatever other desirable things they may believe in, they do not believe in poetry. They believe that poets should write tracts, or perhaps autobiographies; encourage the public, further this cause or that, good or bad, depending upon whose political ox is being gored.
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