Poetry of Witness means poems of the experience of war, suffering, torture, imprisonment, slavery, and oppression; these are poems as ethical and political act in the face of extremity. It’s true that with anthologies, a reader is at the mercy of the tastes of the editors, but in this case they recover and reframe English literature, especially that prior to the 18th century, as a literature of political protest and critique. Poetry of Witness is chronological and begins in England, whose literature was born out of opposition to an absolute monarchy whose powers included routine torture and imprisonment of political opponents.
Reading Poetry of Witness is sobering. It gives the reader pause that for centuries in England, women were powerless, slavery was understood as God’s plan, and religious and political disagreement meant you could be “hanged, cut down while still breathing, castrated, eviscerated, hacked into quarters, and have your head placed on pikes.” It’s easy to make poems in 21st century America when very little is at stake: imagine John Newton, who was responsible during the Atlantic slave trade, for raping slaves, flogging slaves, and torturing children. His religious conversion turned him to abolition when he composed “Amazing Grace” in 1779. Ironically, it is now a classic anthem of the long Civil Rights Era.
What is most remarkable about Poetry of Witness may not even be the poems themselves, powerful as they are, but the historical contexts of each of the poets. New Criticism had many values, but the paragraphs describing what happened to each of the poets here demands that history cannot be separated from what and why poems were made. Not merely aesthetic objects, the poems could get you killed.
All the perennial favorites are here: Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Yeats, etc. as well as many we’ve never read before, forgotten by the canon: Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, Margaret Cavendish, Eliza Lee Follen, etc. There are also some least favorites, like Francis Scott Key. For centuries in England, war was fought between Protestants and Catholics. Many of the poems here are from those horribly persecuted by one side or another. The strength of Poetry of Witness is that it shows the perennial favorites, such as Keats or Dickinson, in a completely new frame.
English poetry reveals itself differently after reading this book than does that of English fiction. English fiction, thrilling as it is, was frequently the fiction of social conventions or the gothic imagination. (such as Thackeray, Austen, Shelley, etc.). English poetry, maybe because of its power to condense time and space, was often the form artists took to memorialize trauma. Hélène Cixous has described the ways differences in gender, for example, exceed the symbolic. She links the way hysteria upsets the nature of identification: “There are structures characteristic of hysteria that are not neuroses, that work with very strong capacities of identification with the other, that are scouring, that make mirrors fly, that put disturbing images back into circulation.” The poems that fill the pages of this anthology do that, they put back the disturbing images. Think of Dickinson’s “Great Globules” that “spill the Scarlet Rain” or Yeats’s “terrible beauty” or Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “sap ran free in my veins.”
My only complaint about this anthology—if I were teaching and used it for a class I’d have to supplement my own additions—is that it seems to leave out some crucial “poetry of witness” written more recently. What about Tory Dent, Melvin Dixon, Tim Dlugos, Lynda Hull, Charles Barber, etc. and those poets who were victims of the AIDS crisis, especially in its first decade? What about Etheridge Knight, Amiri Baraka, Russell Atkins, James A. Emanuel, Mari Evans, or Bob Kaufman, and those poets of black liberation? I know little of the business of acquiring the rights to poems, but it would have been wonderful to have had included some.
Reading hundreds of poems after torture, violence, and brutality, one marvels aghast at the European, or specifically English sense of superiority while in Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, Cambodia, El Salvador, Colombia, Iraq, Myanmar, and elsewhere, people have been slaughtering each other ad nauseum; every sin is fresh and original, but the poems in this book show the English did it to themselves for centuries.
It’s a marvel how Forché and Wu carefully plot two sometimes competing historical modes in how they pace and introduce their selections: to paraphrase the oral historian Alessandro Portelli in The Death of Luigi Trastulli, there is “a ‘vertical’ shift in modes (upward to pure politics or downward to personal life and affections); or a ‘horizontal’ shift in chronology.” Percy Bysshe Shelley, for example, becomes almost mythological in his constant critique and disruption of tyranny; his life as a political activist fed a “torrent of indignation…boiling in [his] veins.” In this way, the anthology casts the Romantics, often associated with a more pastoral mode, with destroying murderous political oppression.
Oscar Wilde, himself imprisoned for two years at hard labor as Prisoner C.3.3. in block C of Reading Gaol remarked that “all trials are trials for one’s life.” What power words have in 21st century American culture seems like mere residue on a window when faced with the torrents of gushing waves pouring from our poetic ancestors. What would it be like to write and be willing to be tortured or killed for those poems?