I don't know if Detroit produces poets of conscience routinely, but I do know that two of the best such poets, and two of the best poets by any measure are Philip Levine and Carolyn Forché, and both are from Detroit. Oh, Detroit has produced other great "writers," among them Gerry Milligan and John Lee Hooker, and doubtless other great poets, but Carolyn Forché stands in relief.
When Forché's, Gathering the Tribes was published in 1975, Stanley Kunitz's selection that year for the Yale Younger Poet's Prize, Kenneth Rexroth wrote with prescience: "Carolyn Forché is beyond question the best woman poet to appear in the Yale Younger Poet series since Muriel Rukeyser, whom in a special way she somewhat resembles. She is far better education than most poets, not just in school, but in life.. .She is also something nobody ever seemed to be able to find in the 30's whe they were in demand--a genuine proletarian poet."
Rexroth was stumbling, more for what Forché herself later called the poetry of witness than the poetry of political class, but the comparison to Rukeyser is nontheless inviting.
I happily remember sitting in the library room of the Yale University Press more than twenty years ago to witness the emergence of a poet of stature, certainly the best writer in the series to have come along in a good while, man or woman. I remember still an electrcity in the room during her reading, an echo of Gertrude Stein's acknowledgement of good writing: the bell rings. What I most remember is the satisfied smile on Kunitz's avuncular and beatific face. He knew his choice was right. Forché's second book, The Country Between Us, published in 1982, focused on El Salvador, and fully announced a poetry of conscience. At the time, she said in an interview, when asked about whether she was an activist writer, and whether such writers have an obligation to speak out for human rights,
"I believe that citizens have an obligation to act upon or voice support for their principles in this regard. No special obligation accrues to writers. My human rights activism has arisen out of this moral and social obligation. I have felt that that is one particular work and my poetry is another work, so rather than referring to myself as an activist poet, I might perhaps accept the idea of being an activist and a poet. The point at which they intersect is something artistically circumstantial. I didn't determine to write poems with a certain subject matter. Poetry can't be placed in the servce of anything other than itself."
That last line is most powerful to me, for it gets at the way in which Forché's poetry never leaves what is at the core of its nature: truth-seeking through memorable speech. And as such, poetry is work that partakes of the transformative vision: to see, transform, and thereby transcend, subsuming all that has come before, a process which is at the heart of all artistic endeavor.
I had organized a reading for Country that was memorable, not just for its poetric jeremiads and the overall stunning brilliance of Carolyn's work, like a light cast upon the reaches of the soul hitherto held in darkness, but also for two young men vying for Carolyn's attention (unbeknownst to her), who ended up in a parking lot fight. At issue was my copy of the book, but it had somehow come to represent, metonymically? synecdochically? Carolyn's attention. The one was arrested, the other got black eye. I'm not sure who got the book, but I never saw it again.
In the early 90's, Carolyn Forché produced a work of editing almost as moving as her poetry, "Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness." People, save for those who edit, seldom approach an act of editing as anything approaching a work of art, but this work, the design of it, like good cabinetry, or architecture, allows both the poems contained and the reader reading a place, a place to dwell, and to remember. A place to join the stand against forgetting.
In the Introduction to that work, Forché wrote:
"Something happed along the way to the introspective poet I had been. My new work seemed controversial to my American contemporaries, who argued against its 'subject matter,' or 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. Like many other poets, I felt I had no real choice regarding the impulse of my poems, and had only to wait, in meditative expectancy. In attempting to come to terms with the question of poetry and politics, I turned to the work of Anna Akhmatova, Yanni Ritsos, Paul Celan, Fredrico Garcia Lorca, Nazim Hikmet, and others. I began collecting their work, and soon found myself a repository of what began to be called 'the poetry of witness.'"
Forché's most recent book, 1994's The Angel of History works with that sense of witness, within the ruins of twentieth century culture, and its misplaced optimism about perfectibility. It moves through fragmentary elocutions to elegiac wholeness. Toward the end, in the Book Codes poems, she writes of time, its passing, its evolution, and its witness:
an afternoon swallowing down whole years its every hour troops marching by in the snow until they are transparent from the woods through tall firs a wood with no apparent end cathedrals at the tip of our tongues with countries not yet seen whoever can cry should come here
Powerful work by a supremely talented writer who has done nothing but deliver on the promise Kunitz saw. Please welcome Carolyn Forché.