American Artists Writers and Writing

Carolyn Forché & The Poetry of Witness

In the next three days, I’ll be putting up voting recommendations
and endorsements, but—for now—a social justice and literature break.

On Thursday night I was deliriously happy to have the opportunity to give a small speech introducing the poet Carolyn Forché, who was the keynote speaker for the week long celebration of art, literature and social justice at Loyola Marymount University called the Bellarmine Forum.

It was risky of the Forum’s organizer, my wonderful friend, the gifted poet Gail Wronsky, to assign a non-poet—namely me— to introduce Forché.

But internationally known poet, translator, anthologist and human rights activist Carolyn Forché is one of my heroes, so I said yes right away when Gail asked me—risk or no risk.

If by chance you don’t know Forché’s work, allow me to introduce you—as she is exactly the right poet to talk about on a social justice news site.

Carolyn Forché writes what she describes as the “poetry of witness.”

In her famous anthology, Against Forgetting, Forché quotes the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. who wrote the following to a friend just before he was abducted and executed in 1936 by fascist troops under the command of General Francisco Franco:

“Art for art’s sake is something that would be cruel, if it won’t fortunately so ridiculous.”

Forché never writes art for art’s sake. She creates her art as an act of engagement with the wounds of the world around her.

Yet, just to be clear, Carolyn Forché does not write political poetry. There are no polemics in her work. She doesn’t lecture. As she herself describes the distinction, there is personal poetry, and there is political poetry.

And then…. there is a third category, a third literary path, which is the one that she inhabits. The third category is poetry of witness, in which one does not take a side, but leaves notes….bread crumbs…. traces—for the rest of us to find.

Forché writes poetry as evidence.

Here, for example, is her most notorious poem, the one that is the most often anthologized, written after her year-long stay in El Salvador, working with Amnesty International, during the late 1970’s at the height of that country’s brutal and deadly civil war.


WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

The poet Hannah Arendt once wrote the following about how we must actively reject the unwarranted pain that some humans inflict on others.

One man will always be left alive to tell the story. The lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. It is that, under conditions of terror, most people will comply—but some will not. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.

Carolyn Forché never complies. She notices, she illuminates what she has seen and, in doing so, she mends, she repairs, she heals and she restores.

In her recent poem, The Lightkeeper published in the New Yorker this past spring—and which she said will be part of her newest book, nearly finished now— she wrote:

Nothing to be afraid. Nothing but happiness as unbearable as the dread
from which it comes. Go toward the light always, be without ships

Carolyn Forché’s work goes toward the light—always.

Check it out.

PS: There are two of Forché’s books that are among the pile of I always keep by my bed for emotional security: The Angel of History and her 760-page anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness.

Nelson Mandela wrote of the latter,Against Forgetting is itself a blow against tyranny, against prejudice, against injustice.”

Against Forgetting in particular is one of the handful of books I would save in a fire, not because I can’t get the thing again, (Obviously, I can order it from Amazon) but because, in a time of duress, I would want to have it with me as a talisman.

PPS: No, this is not the introduction I gave for Carolyn Forché, but yes, I did snip a few things from it.

Okay, back to our regularly scheduled programming.


  • I’m a poet too.

    There once was a punk named Tony.
    He’s fat and wears a suit.

    He wrote a book about the Mexican Mafia,
    but only sold a few.

    He’ll blame the liberal reviewers,
    for his lack of sales.

    Instead of admitting he can’t write for shit,
    and his entire concept was a fail.

    What do you think, Celeste?

  • Roses are red violets but violets are blue.
    If you’re black and move to Highland Park the Avenues gang will kill you.
    If you’re an L.A. District Attorney you would know this to be true.
    If you’re a sureno cholo and sell drugs the mexican mafia will tax you.
    If you’re a paranoid whacko would Mr. Rafael posing as ATQ be true?

  • His game was old and tired, his outrage was phony
    The guy was delusional, rest assured I aint Tony

  • Nice photo of you, Celeste. Lots of light on your faces to blot out shadows – which unfortunately isn’t the case in the Filter appearances. While, by contrast, Fred Roggin sits in a professional studio with professional lighting and makeup!

    However, given the excerpt about the Colonel and his bag of ears with which he tops off dessert (wonderful contrast to the homey roast beef dinner!), I can’t agree with Forche’s self-assessment that she does not write political poetry! Not overtly polemical, maybe.

  • SLB, thanks for the compliment, but unfortunately you’re mistaking my lovely, talented poet friend, Gail Wronsky, for me. (I was behind the camera snapping the photo, she’s the one with the hair streaked with blue.)

    Yeah, I know those Filter experiences are…..something else when it comes to how one appears. The little semi-fish-eye lens on my laptop is not the optimum way to be photographed. If you go to the ABOUT US section on the site, you’ll see the non-fish-eye-photographed me.

    About Forche, her poetry isn’t non-political, I agree, but also I think her distinction holds. The notion of poetry of witness makes sense—to me anyway—as a third literary path, so to speak, particularly when you read the full body of her work, which grows ever less literal after the book in which that poem, The Colonel, appears.

    For instance, this is a fragment taken from a poem about an old Japanese woman talking about Hiroshima. It’s from Forché’s book, The Angle of History. It’s not anti-bomb, exactly. It just is an observance of what came after:

    If you want, I’ll tell you, but nothing I say will be enough.

    We tried to dress our burns with vegetable oil.

    Her hair is the white froth of rice rising up kettlesides, her mind also.
    In the post-war years she thought deeply about how to live.

    The common greeting dozo-hiroskhu is please take care of me.
    All hibakusha still alive were children then.

    A cemetery seen from the air is a child’s city.

    I don’t like this particular red flower because
    it reminds me of a woman’s brain crushed under a roof.

    Perhaps my language is too precise, and therefore difficult to understand?

    We have not, all these years, felt what you call happiness
    But at times, with good fortune, we experience something close.

  • OOPS, Celeste – but I mistook you for Carolyn, the lady on the left, because of the glasses and long hair and all.

    RE: the Hiroshima poem: I like this one, because it’s from a human point of view, the innocent people who just happen to be citizens of a country that declared war on another — in this case, on the U. S. with Pearl Harbor, for which this was a retaliation. (And arguably, cut the war short and preventing the loss of maybe millions of lives.)

    I visited the Hiroshima memorial a few years back, by the way, and saw wax figures of just such victims, with mostly elderly people weeping at the sight: those who remembered, who may have had friends or family among the victims. A few Japanese looked at my companion and me with hostility, as though we were personally responsible – even though all they saw was, we were white and spoke English, might not even have been American. However most gave us a little nod of maybe, respect, that we took the interest to visit, to think, to feel. What the victims must have felt, then and years later as their skin continued to peel off – a uniquely horrible experience, rendering them living dead, in a way.

    BUT we were also struck by the jarringly inaccurate distortion of history in the English plaque, which explained this horrific occurrence with, “As the war was nearing by” (exact words), “the Americans dropped the XYX bomb on Hiroshima…” as though it were unprovoked. One of the examples of the notorious distortion of history little talked about these days. Hopefully that is changing as young people are learning from the net and other sources, and as with any war, the take-aways are less and less personal.

    We see the flip side with Japanese visitors at Pearl Harbor, by the way, though that is more low-key, no wax figures of drowned servicemen, just a floating tomb.

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