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Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art

To hell and back, with poetry. 

The letter arrived on a series of plain postcards in Joseph Brodsky’s penciled cursive, mailed separately from his newly imposed exile in Ann Arbor, Michigan, very near the township of my childhood. They contained his advice to a young poet brash enough to send her youthful efforts to him. You should consider including in your poems more of your own, well, philosophy, he wrote. And on another card: It is also a pity that you do not read Russian, but I think you should try to read Anna Akhmatova.

It was, I believe, two years earlier that I had read excerpts from the transcript of Brodsky’s trial in the former Soviet Union, condemning him to forced labor. When asked on what authority he pronounced himself a poet, he had answered that the vocation came from God. Now he was advising me to read Akhmatova, and so that winter I went into the stacks of the Library of Congress and found a volume of her poems, translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward. Kneeling on the floor between the shelves, I read a passage no doubt well known to readers of Poetry:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
     “Can you describe this?”
       And I said, “I can.”
       Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

Akhmatova referred to this passage as Vmesto predisoviia (Instead of a Preface), adding it as prologue to her great poem, “Requiem,” written during the years of her son Lev Gumilev’s imprisonment. The poem was her podvig, her spiritual accomplishment of “remembering injustice and suffering” as experienced within herself and as collectively borne. Anna’s friend, Lidiya Chukovskaya, remembers her subsisting on black bread and tea. According to the research of Amanda Haight:

She was extremely thin and frequently ill. She would get up from bed to go and stand, sometimes in freezing weather, in the long lines of people waiting outside the prisons, hoping against hope to be able to see her son or at least pass over a parcel. . . . The poems of “Requiem,” composed at this time, were learnt by heart by Lidiya Chukovskaya, Nadezhda Mandelstam, and several other friends who did not know who else was preserving them. Sometimes Akhmatova showed them a poem on a piece of paper which she burnt as soon as she was sure it had been committed to memory. . . . In a time when a poem on a scrap of paper could mean a death sentence, to continue to write, to commit one’s work to faithful friends who were prepared to learn poems by heart and thus preserve them, was only possible if one was convinced of the absolute importance and necessity of poetry.

As I was still in my early twenties and educated in the United States, I hadn’t thought of poetry in these terms. I had not yet encountered evil in anything resembling this form, and had not yet, therefore, imagined the impress of extremity upon the poetic imagination, nor conceived of our relation to others as one of infinite obligation: to stand with them in the hour of need, even abject and destitute, in supplication and without need of response. If it were so—if description were possible, of world and its sufferings, then the response would be that smile, or rather something resembling it, passing over what had once been her face.

“Requiem” meditated on the fate of Russia in her torment, marking the stages of suffering, as one would visit the stations of Christ’s passion. Akhmatova wrote it in the cry of a woman who had become all women. In the poem’s progression, Akhmatova takes leave of herself and becomes vigilant beyond all wakefulness. By turns she accepts and disowns her pain, survives, forsakes the tribute of remembrance, and consigns her monument to a prison wall.

I was as yet unaware that most of the prominent twentieth-century poets beyond the English-speaking countries (and even some within them) had endured such experiences during their lives, and those blessed to survive wrote their poetry not after such experiences but in their aftermath—in languages that had also passed through these sufferings; languages that also continued to bear wounds, legible in the line breaks, in constellations of imagery, in ruptures of utterance, in silences and fissures of written speech.

Aftermath is a temporal debris field, where historical remains are strewn (of large events as well as those peripheral or lost); where that-which-happened remains present, including the consciousness in which such events arose. This is writing to be apprehended “in the light of conscience,” as another Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, once wrote. As such, it calls upon the reader, who is the other of this work, to be in turn marked by what such language makes present before her, what it holds open and begets in the reader.

In his Ethics and Infinity, Emmanuel Levinas writes:

The witness witnesses to what is said by him (through him, or as him). For he has said “Here I am!” before the other one; and from the fact that before the one other he recognizes the responsibility which is incumbent upon him, he finds himself having manifested what the face of the other one has meant for him. The glory of the Infinite reveals itself by what it is capable of doing in the witness.

This witness is a call to the other (perhaps in both senses, as the other within the poet, and the one other whom the text addresses), very much as in the face-to-face encounter of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, later elaborated and extended by Levinas as

an awakening that is neither reflection upon oneself nor universalization. An awakening signifying a responsibility for the other, the other who must be fed and clothed—my substitution for the other, my expiation for the suffering, and no doubt for the wrongdoing of the other. An expiation assigned to me without any possible avoidance, and by which my uniqueness as myself, instead of being alienated, is intensified by my irreplaceability.

This awakening is also a readerly coming to awareness before the saying of poetry which calls the reader to her irrevocable and inexhaustible responsibility for the other as present in the testamentary utterance. A poem is lyric art, but Levinas claims that

a poetic work is at the same time a document, and the art that went into its making is at once a use of discourse. This discourse deals with objects that are also spoken in the newspapers, posters, memoirs and letters of every passing age—though in the case of poetry’s strictly poetic expression these objects merely furnish a favorable occasion and serve as pretexts. It is of the essence of art to signify only between the lines—in the intervals of time, between times—like a footprint that would precede the step, or an echo preceding the sound of a voice.

This voice is the saying of the witness, which is not a translation of experience into poetry but is itself experience.

Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, writing on the work of Celan, proposes

to call what [the poem] translates “experience,” provided that we both understand the word in its strict sense—the Latin ex-periri, a crossing through danger—and especially that we avoid associating it with what is “lived,” the stuff of anecdotes.

But a poem, in its witnessing, “arises out of experience that is not perceived as it occurs, is not registered in the first-person ‘precisely since it ruined this first person, reduced it to a ghostlike status, to being a “me without me.”’” So the poem’s witness is not a recounting, is not mimetic narrative, is not political confessionalism, and “it is not simply an act of memory. It bears witness, as Jacques Derrida suggests, in the manner of an ethical or political act.”

The “poetry of witness,” as a term of literary art, had not yet had its genesis, but soon after learning of Brodsky and Akhmatova I began an epistolary friendship with the late Terrence Des Pres, author of The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, in which he cites Akhmatova’s preface to “Requiem” as epigraph to a chapter on the survivor’s will to bear witness. Within months of meeting Des Pres in the summer of 1977, I traveled to Spain to translate Claribel Alegría, herself a poet in exile, and in January of 1978 was welcomed by one of her relatives to El Salvador, where I was to work as a documenter of human rights abuses in the period immediately preceding a twelve-year civil war (working closely with associates of Monsignor Óscar Romero, then archbishop of San Salvador, and with my contact in the International Secretariat of Amnesty International.)

If asked when I returned from El Salvador for the last time in those years, I have said March 16, 1980, a week before the assassination of Monsignor Romero. After thirty years, I now understand that I did not return on that date, that the woman who traveled to El Salvador—the young poet I had been—did not come back. The woman who did return wrote, in those years, seven poems marked by the El Salvador experience, and also an essay, published in the summer of 1981 in American Poetry Review, in which this returning poet states: “It is my feeling that the twentieth-century human condition demands a poetry of witness.” Two years later, Czeslaw Milosz would publish his monograph, The Witness of Poetry, and a phrase, “poetry of witness,” entered the lexicon of literary terms, regarded skeptically by some as a euphemism for “political poetry,” or as political poetry by other means. “Witness” would come to refer, much of the time, to the person of the poet, much as it refers to a man or woman testifying under oath in a court of law. “Poets of witness” were considered by some to be engaged in writing documentary literature, or poetic reportage, and in the mode of political confessionalism.

As compelling as many such “witness” poems are, “poetry of witness” originated in a very different constellation of thought, in which it was not regarded as constituting a poet’s identity, nor prescribing a new littérature engagée. “Poetry of witness,” a term descending from the literature of the Shoah and complicated by philosophical, religious, linguistic, and psychoanalytic understandings of “witness,” remains to be set forth. In my sense of this term, it is a mode of reading rather than of writing, of readerly encounter with the literature of that-which-happened, and its mode is evidentiary rather than representational—as evidentiary, in fact, as spilled blood.

While the solitude and tranquility thought to be the condition of literary production were absent for many twentieth- and twenty-first century poets, even in the aftermath of their survival, writers have survived and written despite all that has happened, and against all odds. They have created exemplary literary art with language that has also passed through catastrophe. The body of thought that informs “the poetry of witness” suggests, moreover, that language can itself be damaged. This idea of “damaged language” appears in George Steiner’s Language and Silence, when he considers the German language “being used to run hell, getting the habits of hell into its syntax”:

Languages have great reserves of life. They can absorb masses of hysteria, illiteracy, and cheapness . . . But there comes a breaking point. Use a language to conceive, organize, and justify Belsen; use it to make out specifications for gas ovens; use it to dehumanize man during twelve years of calculated bestiality. Something will happen to it. . . . Something of the lies and sadism will settle in the marrow of the language. Imperceptibly at first, like the poisons of radiation sifting silently into the bone. But the cancer will begin, and the deep-set destruction. The language will no longer grow and freshen. It will no longer perform, quite as well as it used to, its two principal functions: the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace.

The damage need not be regarded, however, as always irreparable. In the words of Paul Celan in his speech at Bremen:

One thing remained attainable, close and unlost amidst all the losses: language. Language was not lost, in spite of all that happened. But it had to go through its own responselessness, go through horrible silences, go through the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech.

It was this language, this poetry that had passed through death-bringing speech, that I set out to find and gather in my anthology, Against Forgetting. I hoped to discover the trace of extremity that might remain legible in these poems. Common among them is an explicit will to bear witness. Here is Wislawa Szymborska:

Write it. Write. In ordinary ink
on ordinary paper: they were given no food,
they all died of hunger. “All. How many?
It’s a big meadow. How much grass
for each one?” Write: I don’t know.
History counts its skeletons in round numbers.
           From “Hunger Camp at Jaslo”

There are inventories of losses, as in Akhmatova’s “Requiem”:

Nothing I counted mine, out of my life,
is mine to take:

not my son’s terrible eyes,
not the elaborate stone flower
of grief, not the day of the storm,
nor the trial of the visiting hour,

not the dear coolness of his hands,
not the lime trees’ agitated shade,
not the thin cricket-sound
of consolation’s parting word.

The difficulties of forgetting and remembering are marked. Vahan Tekeyan:

Forgetting. Yes. I will forget it all.
One after the other. The roads I crossed.
The roads I did not. Everything that
happened. And everything that did not.
           From “Forgetting”

Guillaume Apollinaire:

Memories composing now a single memory
As a hundred furs make only one coat
As these these thousands of wounds make only one newspaper article.
           From “Shadow”

Of the self’s fragmentation, we read in Angel Cuadra:

The common man I might have been
reproaches me now,
blaming me for his ostracism
his solitary shadow,
his silent exile.
           From “In Brief”

Early in the twentieth century, there is evidence of faith and prayer in poetry, and of belief in the sacred. Toward the middle of the century, there is a discernible shift toward alienation from the deity. Celan:

They dug and they dug, so their day
went by for them, their night. And they did not praise God,
who, so they heard, wanted all this,
who, so they heard, knew all this.
           From There Was Earth Inside Them

The temporal sense seems changed. In Velimir Khlebnikov’s “Suppose I make a timepiece of humanity,” we read this:

I tell you, the universe is the scratch
of a match on the face of the calculus.
And my thoughts are a picklock at work
on a door, and behind it someone is dying.

There are many other shared qualities, such as the experience of consciousness itself as fragmented and altered, and for the first time, soldier poets write of the extremity of the battlefield explicitly in terms of its horrors. Poetic language attempts a coming to terms with evil and its embodiments, and there are appeals for a shared sense of humanity and collective resistance. There are many poems of address: to war as figural, to death and evil, memory and hunger as figural, and of course to the world to come:

We speak loudly but no one understands us.
But we are not surprised
For we are speaking the language
That will be spoken tomorrow.
           Horst Bienek, from “Resistance”

In conditions of extremity (war, suffering, struggle), the witness is in relation, and cannot remove him or herself. Relation is proximity, and this closeness subjects the witness to the possibility of being wounded. No special protection can be sought and no outcome intended. The witness who writes out of extremity writes his or her wound, as if such writing were making an incision. Consciousness itself is cut open. At the site of the wound, language breaks, becomes tentative, interrogational, kaleidoscopic. The form of this language bears the trace of extremity, and may be comprised of fragments: questions, aphorisms, broken passages of lyric prose or poetry, quotations, dialogue, brief and lucid passages that may or may not resemble what previously had been written.

The word “extremity” (extremus) is the superlative correlative of the word “exterior” (exterus). Extremity suggests “utmost,” “exceedingly great,” and also “outermost,” “farthest,” implying intense suffering and even world-death; a suffering without knowledge of its own end. Ethical reading of such works does not inhere in assessing their truth value or efficacy as “representation,” but rather in recognizing their evidentiary nature: here language is a life-form, marked by human experience, and is also itself material evidence of that-which-occurred. This evidence continues to mark human consciousness. The aftermath is a region of devastated consciousness of barbarism and the human capacity for cruelty and complicity with evil. In this aftermath, we are able to read—in the scarred landscape of battlefields, in bomb craters and unreconstructed ruins, in oral and written testimony and its extension in literary art—the mark or trace of extremity.

In the work of witness, of writing out of extremity, the poem does not become a means to an extra-literary end: the poet, according to Maurice Blanchot,

is excluded from the facile, humanistic hope that by writing, or “creating,” he would transform his dark experience into greater consciousness. On the contrary: dismissed, excluded from what is written—unable even to be present by virtue of the non-presence of his very death—he has to renounce all conceivable relations of a self (either living or dying) to the poem which henceforth belongs to the other.

Terrence Des Pres would not have relinquished the “humanistic hope” of transformation, but Blanchot’s reading of the poet’s renunciation, of the poem as address to the other to whom it henceforth belongs, corresponds radiantly for me to formulations in the ethics of Levinas, and also to the thought of Derrida (after his ethical turn). “This will be about bearing witness,” Derrida writes in an essay on Celan, “and about poetics as bearing witness. . . . A poem can ‘bear witness’ to a poetics. It can promise it, it can be a response to it, as to a testamentary promise.” Derrida imagines the poem as a singularity, marked in its date, “that, in the reference that carries it beyond itself toward the other or toward the world, opens the verbal body to things other than itself.” What the poem lays open to the other is an unending address, a call to the other, which manifests that-which-happened.

Witness, then, is neither martyrdom nor the saying of a juridical truth, but the owning of one’s infinite responsibility for the other one (l’autri). It is not to be mistaken for politicized confessionalism. The confessional is the mode of the subjective, and the representational that of the objective, and it is necessary to move beyond both and place ourselves under and before the other in an ethical relation that precedes ontology (Levinas), an understanding that humans come into being through relation. In the aftermath of Auschwitz, we begin with a heteronymous self and understand Descartes’s subject/object construction as a two-century-old denial of the primacy of the other and of relation. We abandon this denial to enter an inter-subjective sphere of lived immediacy. In the poetry of witness, the poem makes present to us the experience of the other, the poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation. When we read the poem as witness, we are marked by it and become ourselves witnesses to what it has made present before us. Language incises the page, wounding it with testimonial presence, and the reader is marked by encounter with that presence. Witness begets witness. The text we read becomes a living archive.


Read a Q&A with Carolyn Forché.


  • Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1950, poet, teacher and activist Carolyn Forché has witnessed, thought about, and put into poetry some of the most devastating events of twentieth-century world history. According to Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times Book Review, Forché’s ability to wed the “political” with the...

Prose from <em>Poetry</em> Magazine

Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art

To hell and back, with poetry. 


  • Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1950, poet, teacher and activist Carolyn Forché has witnessed, thought about, and put into poetry some of the most devastating events of twentieth-century world history. According to Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times Book Review, Forché’s ability to wed the “political” with the...

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