Poetry of Witness

How do you feel about “poetry of witness”? I’m referring to a still-debated term used by Carolyn Forche and other poets that respond in their poems to the injustices, oppression, and violence suffered by others.

At the recent AWP conference in Boston, I heard wonderful poets–from the Old Guard and the Newer  alike–including Sharon Olds, Olga Broumas, Kathleen Graber, and Kimiko Hahn–praise Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser. Carolyn Forche is a long favorite of mine as well.

It’s one of many paths poetry can take, and this one can be fraught. My poetry mentors of the ’80s were mostly men who were, while brilliant artists, indoctrinated in the view that any brand of “political poetry” was, categorically, bad. Today I’m sure their views are more nuanced. At least, I like to think so. I don’t think they would have argued that Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is a bad poem, nor Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner,” but when it came to feminism, domestic violence, abject poverty, and a host of other social issues, they turned away, huddled over poems that remained intensely personal or philosophical. I’ve noticed, over the years, that much of this work is written by women or people of color against whom they would never overtly discriminate today.

What makes “political poetry” good or bad? When does some measure of social activism cross the invisible (perhaps undulating) demarcation between compassion and schlock or opportunism or appropriation of others’ experience?

Author: Kathleen McCoy

I'm a poet, a professor, a mother, a wife, a bit of an activist, a lover of the word at https://kathleenmccoy.wordpress.com. Poetry books include Ringing the Changes (Finishing Line Press, 2019), Green and Burning, Glas Agus a Dho (Word Tech, 2016) and More Water Than Words (chapbook, Finishing Line Press, 2017). Books are available from the publishers or Amazon, or order from your local bookseller.

5 thoughts on “Poetry of Witness”

  1. I’m not very poetically educated, but I like that term. Thanks for introducing it to me. Like any other variant of politics, the determinant of whether “political poetry” is good or bad would be to what extent it persuades the audience to favor the positions it takes. I could see classical aesthetes labeling it bad because it has a more specific goal than the power of words being transformative through effective construction and choice.

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  2. Thinking of your question, my mind immediately flew to Ginsberg’s “America” and Ginsberg’s 4 principles of practice: sincerity, clarity, simplicity, humility. That is, what makes political poetry good or bad is pretty much what makes other kinds of poetry good or bad: bad poetry violates the principles and good poetry affirms them. (Backstory: I played in Ginsberg’s band at Naropa. . .)

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  3. I so agree with you, and I’m glad you thought of Ginsberg. I think also of Derek Walcott in “Midsummer (XXIII)” about a confrontation between blacks and skinheads in London and what Adrienne Rich says about that poem, her own “Twenty-One Love Poems,” and other pieces in an interview with David Montenegro (1991): they express “a different sensibility and in a changed language.”

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    1. Kathie, a difficult question by its very nature: where would you “place” Ginsberg in the canon(s)? And if you don’t mind, where would Kerouac and Burroughs fit (keeping in mind that Burroughs was not a Beat)?

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