Poetry and Catastrophe

Poetry-of-WitnessBy privileging historical catastrophe, a new poetry anthology narrows the definition of art.

Poetry of Witness The Tradition in English, 1500–2001.
Edited by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu.
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In 1993, a poetry anthology appeared that seemed to speak directly to the spirit of the times and, in so doing, appeal to an audience far larger than what poetry in English could generally boast. More than 800 pages long and featuring the work of 145 poets, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness was a heady book for a turbulent era, when several ideologies against which Americans had tended to define their own politics for generations, among them Soviet communism and South African apartheid, were unraveling or had collapsed. As Carolyn Forché, the anthology’s editor, explained in its introduction, the express purpose of the project was to monumentalize poems about the major atrocities and injustices of the recent past: “Many poets did not survive, but their works remain with us as poetic witness to the dark times in which they lived.” The anthology was greeted with enthusiasm, some of it fueled by an inchoate fear that history was accelerating, or may even have ended, and was indifferent to what we deem worthy of remembrance. After all, what is all the hand-wringing about Americans’ lack of historical memory, or the mantra “Never forget” applied to everything from nightclub fires to genocides, but a tacit acknowledgement of our own oblivion, and also of how, despite tragedies personal and collective, most of us somehow manage to go on with our lives?

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