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The Lost and Unlost

Poetry and the irrevocable past.

Your connection of the poetry of witness with the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas suggests that, for you, poetry has a distinctly moral purpose, that it should awaken us to the plight of other people. Is this true? Do you believe that a right reading of poetry leads to this kind of moral awareness and openness?

Poetry begins in a not-knowing rather than a moral impulse. A poet’s consciousness is, in this sense, improvisational and open to transformations, felicitous accidents, and an intuitive response to language generating meaning and music—that is true whether the spark igniting the poem comes from a word, a phrase, an image, or a moment in experience, present or remembered. This spark is what Mandelstam calls poryv, or impulse, and what Emerson thinks of as what is oldest and best in us, the alien visitor. This not-knowing is a hovering and receptive state of consciousness without intention (in the traditional meaning of that word).

Levinas proposes an ethics based on our infinite and inexhaustible responsibility for the “Other,” whom we meet in the face-to-face encounter, and for whom we are also the “Other.” The thought of witness proposes that we consider what is made present to us in certain poetic texts, what is opened up to us, transmitted to us. In this sense, it might resemble the face-to-face encounter and its attendant obligations. If we read a poem as witness (and there are many other ways of reading), we open ourselves to another way of knowing. We read in response to an ethical imperative. We are not bound to read this way, of course, but if we do, we are responding to the poet’s call to the future, to a writing from the past that addresses the reader to come, addresses the one who will lift the corked bottle from the sea waves and read its message.

I don’t know if there is a “right reading” of poetry, but rather many readings, many ways of reading, and one of them is a reading of the poem as witness that is perhaps also testamentary, but is certainly always evidence of that from which it arose. Whether this way of reading leads to moral awareness and openness, I don’t know. In Levinas’s sense, certainly it would provide an occasion for ethical awareness. Mandelstam and also Bakhtin would say that the poet is always writing in response to a listening from an unknown future reader. This means that we can’t know what the poem means because we can’t know what it will mean later. We are writing what in the future will be the irrevocable past.


Does an “evidentiary” reading preclude an aesthetic one? Can a poem be successful as evidence and yet a failure as art?

No reading precludes another. When poetry is read as witness, the poem is judged by its truth as a poem, and what this truth does in the reader. This is Mandelstam’s criterion. If the poem is true in Mandelstam’s terms, it doesn’t fail as art. If it does fail as art, it isn’t a poem, but remains a piece of evidence. If one reading of Kant suggests that the categorical imperative demands a freedom that can be found through the aesthetic experience of the sublime, then aesthetic experience offers the freedom that is the ground of ethics, so perhaps it—the poem—can offer a sense of responsibility or blessing.


You say 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.” Does that mean that the greatest poetry somehow depends upon having suffered some extremity of experience? And how would you respond to John Berryman’s idea that the “luckiest” artist is the one who is presented with the worst possible ordeal that will not actually kill him?

Great poetry might in part depend on engagement with the extremity of existence, but this does not necessarily entail the greatest suffering; these extremes can be experienced meditatively and involve awareness of the radical contingency of all human life. There are poets—and in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries they have been many—whose engagement includes man’s inhumanity to man, and this was the form of extremity I collected into the anthology Against Forgetting: warfare, military occupation, imprisonment, and other forms of extremity endured through the depredations of the state. Not all extremity is of this kind.

As for John Berryman’s statement, I would guess that he was referring to those artists, such as confessional poets, who view their experience as material, and perhaps “suffering” is then also material and provides a more resonant self-expression. He might also be referring to the necessary education of the soul in certain poets, who seem almost determined to subject themselves to all manner of pain for reasons that may partly have to do with their literary art. But this isn’t about the economy of converting personal experience to literary art. No one is a great poet because she is a miserable drunk. No one is a great poet because he has had a nervous breakdown. Suffering, however, can be experienced as a curse or a blessing; the luckiest is the one who can experience it as a blessing.


You say that not only the poets “pass through” their experiences but also their very languages, which continue to “bear wounds, legible in the line breaks, in constellations of imagery, in ruptures of utterance, in silences and fissures of written speech.” Can translation convey this? What is the effect of reading, in translation, all of these poems that trauma has so singularly shaped and stamped?

Poetry is an art of words but also the energy that moves through them—what comes from spirit or noumena, the impulse, the spark, and this is what makes the poem unparaphrasable. A successful translation allows the spirit or impulse of the original to enter and flow through the new language. The poem will not sound like the original, and the music of the original will be lost (together with connotative resonances), but in a good translation a new music is found, and the new language is suffused with the original impulse. If you have faithful and literal translation by itself and without this energy, you have paraphrase. Hans Magnus Enzensberger said “Was nicht selber Poesie ist, kann nicht Ubersetzung von Poesie sein”—what is not poetry, cannot be a translation of poetry. According to Walter Benjamin, translation is the afterlife of the original, and is marked by its ongoing life (and in this sense, language is a life form). In witness, this afterlife is the poem’s survival in another language, along with the mark of extremity.


Can the “poetry of witness” transcend trauma? Can it include joy, or at least an uninhibited shriek of being (the late work of Mandelstam, say)?

One cannot transcend trauma. Trauma is trapped and clings to that which happened. We live not after trauma but in its aftermath. There is a process, which some imagine as the work of “healing,” which is not perhaps accurate. This process is one of transmemberment: one is always attending to the metamorphoses: the nausea and psychic ruin of trauma moving into wisdom and strength, again and again; every day one does the work of turning trauma into what might be called grace or fortitude or wisdom.

Can poetry of witness be experienced or read as joyful? I don’t know why not. A better term might be as blessing. In many poems read as witness, there is an affirmation, a fullness of life. The poet writing in the mode of witness is never within the trauma. The poem is marked by it and bears the remains of what has been endured. In this sense, it might produce “more life,” more of what life is. It isn’t subject matter that makes a poem witness; poems are not what they are  “about.” If they were, that would be paraphrase and not poetry.


Can the poetry of witness be a purely spiritual phenomenon? That is, can the dynamic that you’re describing in this essay, the permanent wounding of consciousness and language, occur from metaphysical, as well as physical, trauma?

If we think of the spiritual as a way of knowing, one can be wounded spiritually. Jean-François Lyotard would argue that the language of the Torah is permanently wounded by the experience of the divine. Jacob endures wrestling with the stranger, his angel. The slightest shock or event can send you from one thinking to another; trauma is said to occur when this shock is sufficiently strong as to overwhelm. If the experience of God is traumatic, it is because we meet with the incommensurate.


In 1981 you wrote, “It is my feeling that the twentieth-century human condition demands a poetry of witness.” Do you still feel this way? How well does a poet like Elizabeth Bishop, who is easily the most highly-regarded American poet of the second half of the twentieth century, meet this demand?

Witness is not demanded of every poet. Witness, as a mode of reading, is a response to certain works—those that bear the mark of extremity, and often those written in light of catastrophic experience. The work of Wallace Stevens, one of the greatest poets of our language, would not often be read as poetry of witness, but rather of contemplative states, formal turns of mind, and poetic accomplishment. However, if we think of witness in light of catastrophic events, we would have to consider The Auroras of Autumn and its implicit confrontation with the violence of wwii. Charles Altieri reads this work in part as Stevens’s

need to explore in what ways imagination may be complicit in one mode of evil and then to see how he [Stevens] might reconstitute his projections so that he could foster an imagination capable of taking responsibility for this complicity and so working toward a different mode of self-consciousness.

This seems to me a species of the reading I have in mind. Works of witness have something to do with the intimacy of world engagement. In Bishop, there is a confrontation with radical otherness: the moose in the road, the fish pulled into the boat still wearing the hooks of his past struggles. She writes out of her shock at coming upon these creatures. The shock that shifts thinking from one to an other.


Your essay is full of major postmodern thinkers but veers far from post-modern thought, which typically asserts the instability of the self, identity, and language. The notion that a particular poet or poem could be witness to, could in some way express, general suffering—many people will find that a hopelessly Romantic notion. What would you say to that?

Rather than postmodern thinkers, I would say that those I have cited are continental philosophers of the war years and after: Benjamin, Levinas, Lyotard. These are thinkers who re-read Heidegger. Poetry read as witness does not become “protest poetry” or, necessarily, “poetry of resistance.” This work involves a reading that isn’t post-modern; it is, perhaps, post-Shoah: writing in the aftermath of events, or what Walter Benjamin would call their “afterlife.”

In any event, suffering, in literary art read as witness, is not general but specific, what Blake would call “particular.” In English it is akin to a Wordsworthian perception that still holds in contemporary American poetry: that the past has a way of coming back, and producing what will happen in the future. In Wordsworthian terms, the poetry comes out of returning memories one doesn’t plan to have, and if you imagine that what these memories bring with them aren’t simply instances of childhood but historical extremity, then yes, this is a Wordsworthian—or Romantic—idea. (Here is how Wordsworth’s sense of memory enters continental philosophy: Wordsworth influences Ruskin, Ruskin influences Proust, Proust influences Lanzmann and also Levinas. Benjamin was a translator of Proust, but also Baudelaire.) This has nothing to do with stabilizing or destabilizing selfhood. If you wish to think in terms of self, it is the self in Levinas who comes into being through the address of the other. The self who grounds her existence in otherness is not so much unstable as dialogic. The permeability of self and other in such work might be profoundly disturbing if one wishes to control one’s own thoughts, but this is instability of a different kind: that which comes when your existence is involved with another’s. Witness can welcome an intimacy that might seem, to some, offensively invasive. There is nothing, in my view, that is not personal. Witness might be read as a public voice, but also a deeply intimate one. This might not be public oratory but lyric whisper.


More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

  • 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 Poetry Magazine

The Lost and Unlost

Poetry and the irrevocable past.
  • 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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