Carolyn Forché is known as a political poet, calling herself a "poet of witness." Growing up in Detroit in the 1950’s, poet Carolyn Forché recalls discovering photographs from a Nazi concentration camp in Look Magazine. After her mother confiscated the journal and hid it, young Forche re-confiscated it, marking perhaps the beginning of a poetic vocation devoted to exposing tyranny, injustice, and bearing witness to the atrocities of the 20th century.
Born one of seven children to a Czech-American housewife and a tool and die maker, Forché describes herself as a “junkheap Catholic” perennially drawn to issues of social justice. The winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize for her volume Gathering the Tribes (1976), Forché’s work sustained a remarkable shift following a year spent on a Guggenheim fellowship in El Salvador. Working closely with Archbishop Oscar Humberto Romero, human rights activist later killed by right-wing assassins, Forché assisted in finding people who had disappeared and in reporting their whereabouts to Amnesty International. The shock of witnessing countless atrocities in Central America generated the volume The Country Between Us (1981), which stirred immediate controversy because of its overt politics: “My new works seemed controversial to my American contemporaries who argued against the right of a North American to contemplate such issues in her work, or against any mixing of what they saw as the mutually exclusive realms of the personal and the political.” Forché ’s “orchid-like” reputation was tarnished forever. One publisher agreed to publish the collection only if the poet would agree to balance images of war-torn El Salvador with lighter poems on more traditional subjects. Forché refused. After much encouragement from fellow writer Margaret Atwood, Forché sent the manuscript to Harper and Row and obtained a contract just three days later. Perhaps the most disturbing and memorable poem in the volume is “The Colonel”-- a prose poem in which the speaker conveys with chilling flatness a horrific story:
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In The Angel of History (1994), Forché turns away from first-person, lyric-narrative form in an effort to engage in a poetic meditation which examines, on a broader scale, the accumulation of a century of atrocities. Divided into five parts, the first three sections follow the narrator as she floats like an angel through the ruins of Europe--leading to death camps and across time to more recent events such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The Angel of History functions as a meditation on the possibility of history itself--evoking the speech of those who have otherwise been forgotten. Taking her title for the volume from Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Forche draws a connection between the poet’s role and that of the angel. Aware of the approaching millennium, the poet/angel warns: “The worst is over/ the worst is yet to come. . .”
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Commenting on the threads which seem to connect all the disparate voices, Forché notes : “What I discovered was that extremity does mark language. Language fragments at the core of trauma, no matter what the subject matter, if a poet comes out of prison after a long time and writes about snowflakes, I began to sense that you could see the prison in the snowflakes.”
The question of the possibility of poetry in a century of horrors circulates throughout the volume, and poets such as Brecht struggle with the undeniable responsibility which comes with language:
“What kind of times are these/ when a talk about trees is almost a crime/because it implies silence about so many horrors?”
Over the years Forché’s quest to understand the individual’s struggle with social upheaval and political turmoil has taken her from El Salvador to the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, and South Africa. Her preoccupation with silence is, as Calvin Bedient notes, “so profound it approximates prayer,” and has culminated in a new genre of North American poetry--the poetry of witness.