Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Poetry of Witness

Today is Carolyn Forche's birthday. In this blog post, Charles Jensen asks, "Is anyone in my generation not indebted to 'The Colonel'? If not indebted, can any of us write without acknowledging it or understanding its importance?" I'm not going to paste the poem here, since it's not mine to post. But you can find it here.

I love this poem, and it's a joy to teach. For one thing, it launches an interesting discussion about what a poem is. I've seen this poem in an anthology of short, short fiction, and most of my students say it reads more like a snippet out of someone's journal.

It probably reads that way because in some ways, it is. Forche herself says, ""People have interpreted many features of this poem, but when I wrote it, I was just trying to capture details so that I would remember. I didn't even think it was a poem. I thought it was a piece of a memoir that got mixed up with my poetry book" (The Language of Life, page 135).

This poem is probably her most widely anthologized poem, in fact, the only one of hers that I've ever seen in those anthologies that most of us use in our first year Lit classes. I've often wondered how Forche feels about that fact. I imagine her saying, "But I've written so many other poems. Some of them are much better." Or perhaps she's happy that a poem of hers has stayed in print and in our consciousness over 30 years after it was first published. I would be.

I am most deeply impressed by her collection Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, her anthology that collects poetry that documents various horrors of the twentieth century. In many ways, it's tough to read for very long. But it's an important collection of scraps of witness that might have otherwise vanished.

Once, we had two college students stay with us; they were part of a choir tour, and in that old-fashioned way, they stayed with church members wherever they went. I'll never forget the image I have of one of the girls devouring that anthology. She looked up at me, and said, "I didn't know that poetry like this existed."

I wish that I had given that college student my copy of that book. I could have gotten another copy. But at the time, I was as jealously in love with that book as the student was.

I wonder what kind of anthologies are still out there, waiting for poets to put them together. We need anthologies that people can't put down, that they compulsively read, trying to read as much of them as possible before moving on to the next choir stop.

I once had an undergraduate professor who dismissed any poetry that ventured into the realms of the political. She asserted that a political poem couldn't be a good poem, a great poem. I disagreed with her, fervently, and I still do. The work of Carolyn Forche, both as poet and anthologist, prove my point.

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