From Reznikoff to Public Enemy
“It is difficult / to get the news from poems / Yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
These famous lines from William Carlos Williams’ “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” argue against viewing poetry as reported news. Yet Williams, most notably in Paterson, and many other 20th-century poets (from the Objectivists to hip-hop artists) have sought to marry poetry with the news. Drawing from the ballad tradition and from Modernist poets’ experiments with collage, these poets frequently employed documentary materials to give voice to stories of people and movements that the mass media tend to ignore or misrepresent. In this sense, they echo earlier lines in “Asphodel”: “my heart rouses / thinking to bring you news / of something // that concerns you / and concerns many men.”
Such poetry arises from the idea that poetry is not a museum-object to be observed from afar, but a dynamic medium that informs and is informed by the history of the moment. In contrast, George Szirtes, writing in the October 2007 issue of Poetry magazine, argues that “poetry is useless as evidence. As far as I know, no poem has been adduced as evidence in court. The truths the poem deals with are not evidentiary truths. . . . They do not lead back to the real life outside the poem: their truths refer to the real life inside the poem.” The documentary poem opposes Szirtes’ idea of a closed system, inviting “the real life outside the poem” into it while also offering readers a journey into the poem. Because of this double movement, documentary poems constantly court their own collapse, testing a poem’s tensile boundaries in the face of what Wallace Stevens called “the pressure of reality.” He defined this as “life in a state of violence, not physically violent as yet for us in America, but physically violent for millions of our friends and for still millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone else” (“The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”). Stevens never sounded so much like Martin Luther King Jr.
The successful documentary poem withstands the pressure of reality to remain a poem in its own right: its language and form cannot be reduced to an ephemeral poster, ready made for its moment but headed for the recycling bin. While it may be that such poems will not “stand up” in a court of law, they testify to the often unheard voices of people struggling to survive in the face of unspeakable violence. In the words of C.D. Wright in One Big Self, “I too love. Faces. Hands. The circumference / Of the oaks. I confess. To nothing / You could use. In a court of law.” These poems ride the ambiguity between a nothing and a something that can be used. Their power resides in their negotiation between language of evidence and language of transcendence.
The following roughly chronological list of documentary poems offers a few highlights of the tradition of poet as journalist, poet as documentarian, poet as historian, poet as agitator.
1. “IV: Domestic Scenes” and “VIII: Negroes” from Testimony: The United States, 1885–1890 (1934, 1978–9) and Holocaust (1975) by Charles Reznikoff
One could use any number of American balladeers—both anonymous and famous—as a starting point for a list of documentary poetry. Arguably, Ezra Pound’s Cantos—that epic poem “containing history”—could also fit the bill. But Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony and Holocaust offer an apt point of departure. Part of a group of poets (who include Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Basil Bunting) that came to be known as the Objectivists for their poetry of strict description and unswerving attention to the world, Reznikoff worked in a legal publishing house summarizing court records.
This labor led to his major works, two book-length docu-poems that derive their lines from court proceedings (often highlighting racial crimes) in both the United States and Germany. Testimony, originally published as prose in 1934, became a massive two-volume poetic meditation on America that was completed in 1978–9. For Reznikoff, as for the 19th-century balladeers, the story of America unfolded in often shocking acts of violence—acts that demonstrated the dark sides of American life: racism, patriarchal violence, and petty hatreds. Holocaust, similarly, compresses 26 volumes of courtroom testimony from the trials of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg and Jerusalem. In the poem, Reznikoff self-deprecatingly offers himself as a poetic medium, a secondary witness to the horrors of the Shoah.
The following selections from the beginning of Testimony—“IV: Domestic Scenes,” “VIII: Negroes,” “IX” and “X”—dramatize the violence of racial and sexual oppression with raw understatement. Reznikoff’s adaptation of spare, legalistic language makes the poems vibrate with incommunicability, especially because he connects seemingly disparate examples of American violence, including a Negro who was beaten and killed after allegedly looking into a white family’s window, an Irish woman who disappeared and later was found murdered, and an entire town that died when the railroad never came.
2. “Absalom” and “George Robinson: Blues” from The Book of the Dead (1938) by Muriel Rukeyser
Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead is an unforgettable long poem about mine workers afflicted by silicosis in West Virginia during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Having joined friend Nancy Naumburg, a radical journalist and photographer, for a trip to Gauley Junction, West Virginia, Rukeyser uses court records, first-person interviews, and poetic narrative to create a poem that evokes “The Waste Land”—if it had been written by Rosa Luxemburg. This poem is one of the least-known great long poems of the 20th century. Employing a range of poetic forms (from blues to sonnets), Rukeyser honors the voices and stories of West Virginia mining folk who struggle to make sense of their individual and collective losses. In this labor, Rukeyser becomes a poetic Isis, piecing together the Osirises of Gauley Junction.
Like Reznikoff’s Testimony, Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead includes voices that are not typically part of the chorus of American life. “Absalom” and “George Robinson: Blues” are both pivotal dramatic monologues within the longer poem, mediating the voices of a bereft mother of miners and an African-American miner, respectively, while “The Disease” uses transcripts from a doctor’s testimony about silicosis. The penultimate lines of “Absalom,” spoken by a mother on behalf of her dead son, come to represent Rukeyser’s own reclamation project: “He shall not be diminished, never; / I shall give a mouth to my son.”
3. “America” (1956) by Allen Ginsberg
“America” is a good example of how a poem can deliver the news of an era while providing a lens into the past. In this case, Allen Ginsberg evokes both his own historical present, the mid-1950s, and the radical zeitgeist of the 1910s–30s (referencing the Wobblies, Sacco and Vanzetti, and the Scottsboro Boys). In so doing, Ginsberg’s “America” becomes a monument to its own historical moment, with the mainstream’s outsized fears of Communist Russia (“her want to take our cars out of our garages”) and his own clownish Beat resistance to that culture (“It occurs to me that I am America. I am talking to myself again”). A poem of rich tonalities and voices, alternately hilarious and angry, “America” feels more liberating than “Howl,” and it’s a lot more fun to read (and hear). The famous recording of “America,” available in Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems and Songs and in Poetry on Record, shows Ginsberg at his comic best, intoxicated in all the right ways, and the audience leaning into every word, ready to recognize themselves and laugh.
4. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (1964) by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan shifted to a more surrealist, apocalyptic vision when he turned to electric music, but his early work is rife with acerbic songs that capture the racial and class contradictions of life during the years of unprecedented prosperity after World War II. Harry Smith’s famous Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), one of Dylan’s seminal influences, contains a set of songs that demonstrate the balladeer’s tradition of adapting lurid news stories, such as the sinking of the Titanic (cf. “When That Great Ship Went Down”) or the assassination of a president (cf. “Charles Guiteau”), and telling them from an outsider’s point of view. The ballad, after all, has long been admitted into the poetry canon, from outright ballads such as “Barbara Allen” to the hymn-based poems of Emily Dickinson, which follow the meter and rhyme of the ballad.
“The Lonesome Death” departs from some of the strictures of the poetic ballad form, but its use of rhyme and compressed storytelling places it within this tradition. It tells of the murder, by a wealthy, politically connected man named William Zantzinger, of a 51-year-old black kitchen maid named Hattie Carroll, and his subsequent sentence of six months in jail. The sentence came in August 1963; just two months later, Dylan had already recorded the song and was playing it regularly during live shows and on television. Bringing to light not only the gruesome story but the sentimentalizing coverage of the event in the mass media (“now ain’t the time for your tears”), Dylan engaged public attention in a way he would repeat years later, when he took on the case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in “Hurricane”—a song whose selective shaping of the events of a murder has been as debated almost as much as the case itself.
5. Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems (1980) by Ernesto Cardenal
A Jesuit priest and former Nicaraguan minister of culture after the Sandinista revolution of the 1970s, Ernesto Cardenal wrote this book’s titular poem in the mid-1950s to dramatize his country’s struggle for economic and political independence from the United States and to honor the assassinated Nicaraguan guerrilla Carlos Sandino. Other poems in the collection, which was inspired in part by Pablo Neruda’s Canto General, document the 1979 revolution as it is happening—a hectic and ecstatic, though not always successful, revolutionary poetry.
Some have noted how Cardenal’s poetry detailing the past served a critical historiographical function in a society where dissent was suppressed; some of the poems written in the heat of the revolution occasionally lapse into an uncritical celebration of all done in the name of revolution. Translator Robert Pring-Mill, who first called Cardenal’s poetry “documentary,” notes in his introduction that these poems use filmic techniques such as “crosscutting, accelerated montage, or flash frames . . . [which] is aimed at helping to shape the future—involving the reader in the poetic process in order to provoke him into full political commitment” (ix–x). As his readers put together the fragments of history, they participate in its telling and offer their own versions of where their common future might lead. The following excerpt is the opening of the poem “Zero Hour.”
6. “The Colonel” (1982) by Carolyn Forché
Carolyn Forché’s years in El Salvador (1978–81) working as a human rights activist led to this poem, in which a poet visits a colonel who lives a privileged but barricaded existence in his country. Forché’s poem, written in prose, offers itself as a documentary retelling. It ominously begins: “What you have heard is true.” Yet this poem is interesting precisely because it contains both a documentary veneer and plenty of hints of literary artifice. In other words, it suggests the highly fictive nature of the life the colonel leads behind his walled compound, as well as the literary aspect of all documentary poetry. In the poem, the moon itself “swung bare on its black cord over the house,” as if it were an interrogation lamp or a stage prop. Forché later compiled Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, an anthology of poetry written in conditions of extremity that “reclaims the social from the political and in so doing defends the individual against illegitimate forms of coercion.”
7. Coming to Jakarta: A Poem about Terror (1989) by Peter Dale Scott
When literature scholar Tracy Ware argued that “Coming to Jakarta is in a way the long poem that [Noam] Chomsky never wrote,” she captured the essentially radical nature of Peter Dale Scott’s odd and compelling epic. Yet Chomsky, the linguistic and political anarchist known for his unflappable rationalism, never evokes the subjective terror that Scott summons in this nerve-bundled recounting of the poet’s heady encounters with international political intrigue.
In this poem, Scott records the process of uncovering his personal, familial, and political relationships to the subterranean machinations of the CIA in the 1960s. The first in a trilogy of long poems, it tells the previously untold story of CIA involvement in Indonesia, particularly during the 1965 massacre of a half-million people. Scott turns to poetry partly because he can find no one who will publish an unexpurgated version of the CIA’s role in Indonesia and elsewhere during the Cold War. Poetry, for Scott, flies under the radar of the censoring apparatus still in place in prose. Though the poem occasionally lapses into (or perhaps thrives upon) conspiracy theories, it also demonstrates how poetry can become both a medium for and a matrix of unspoken histories. Just as Whitman proposed to sing for “many long dumb voices,” Scott attempts to accurately tell the story in a form that is his own, though it is based on William Carlos Williams’ “triadic foot” of three-line stanzas written in staircased indentation.
8. “911 Is a Joke” (1990) by Public Enemy
Chuck D, the mastermind and principal lyricist of Public Enemy, once called rap “the CNN of the ghetto.” The acclaimed rap group stormed onto the popular music scene in the late 1980s with Fear of a Black Planet. One of many topical songs on this album, “911” decries the failure of emergency services to respond swiftly to calls made from black neighborhoods. Sung by Flava Flav, the comic sidekick of Chuck D, the song is nonetheless a blistering indictment of the broken social contract. What is remarkable about “911” is that this news was, of course, not news for the ghetto (whose denizens were well aware of the problems of getting medical help) but news about the ghetto (for the group’s suburban white listeners).
Yet despite its grim subject the song contains plenty of poetry in its relentless allusions, both musical and linguistic; when Flav compares the loss of limbs to “compilation,” for instance, he uses the metaphors of the music industry to lay bare the brute economics of emergency medical treatment. I can’t help but think of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” in which the poet juxtaposes the selling of a quadroon girl with the amputation of a diseased limb that “drops horribly in a pail.” For Whitman, as for Flav, black people have been reduced to expendable appendages.
9. “News Report, September 1991: U.S. Buried Iraqi Soldiers Alive in Gulf War” by Denise Levertov
In “News Report,” Denise Levertov bypasses some of her earlier lyric attempts at antiwar poetry by collaging a back-page journalistic account of the U.S. mass burial of Iraqi soldiers; that is, the poet performs a “cut-up” of the original article, fragmenting its language to convey the trauma of a U.S. military operation that involved bulldozing trenches during Operation Desert Storm, thus burying alive the Iraqi soldiers inside.
Repeating and juxtaposing the words of the U.S. military spokesmen, the poet highlights the limited media access to the war (and hence the lack of nonmilitary witnesses to the deaths) and underlines the war’s connections to capitalism. Phrases such as “carefully planned and / rehearsed” and “the tactic was designed” easily could have emerged from a corporate board meeting. The terrible limit of corporate thinking is captured in a colonel’s assertion that the mass burial of Iraqis was justifiable because burying the bodies individually was not “cost-effective” because it might have resulted in additional American casualties.
In the past few months, I’ve come across four other notable works of poetry that rely on documentary materials in intriguing ways.
Martha Collins’ Blue Front (2006) engages in an act of historiography in which the poet attempts to reconstruct her father’s experience, as a five-year-old, of witnessing the lynching of a black man in the small town of Cairo, Illinois. Collins presents the contradictory and overlapping accounts of what happened on that fateful day to probe the difficulty of chronicling traumatic events.
Jorie Graham’s Overlord (2006) uses snippets of language from soldiers who participated in Operation Overlord, the U.S. storming of Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast during World War II. She also uses the meditation on a past war to critique the ongoing conflict in Iraq.
C.D. Wright’s One Big Self (2006) culls statements and stories from the poet’s interviews of Louisiana prison inmates, conducted with photographer Deborah Luster (perhaps following in the tradition of Muriel Rukeyser’s trip to Gauley Junction with photographer Nancy Naumburg). Wright juggles these voices and images in ways that create “one big self” that contains author, reader, and prisoner.
Finally, in God Bless (2007), H.L. Hix composes a series of mathematically formal poems “constructed entirely of passages from speeches, executive orders, and other public statements of George W. Bush,” then interleaves them with poems based on the letters and speeches of Osama bin Laden. The poems comically, and frighteningly, transform George Bush’s language into forms as elaborate and exotic as the sestina and the ghazal.
It is worth noting that these recent forays into documentary poetry often invite a chorale effect, with multiple voices and voicings merging into a larger (but often dissonant) symphony. These are poems that don’t simply “contain multitudes” (as Whitman bragged) but seethe and breathe multitudes.
Philip Metres was born in San Diego and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He earned a BA from Holy Cross College and both an MFA and PhD from Indiana University. Metres is the author of the poetry collections To See the Earth (2008), A Concordance of Leaves (2013),...