Let them not say: we did not see it.
Let them not say: we did not hear it.
Let them not say: they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.
Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
we witnessed with voices and hands.
Let them not say: they did nothing.
We did not-enough.
Let them say, as they must say something:
A kerosene beauty.
Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,
read by its light, praised,
and it burned.
Jane Hirschfield, 2014
Hi everyone and welcome to Tuesday night poetics – it’s Peter from Australia and tonight we’re talking about poetry of witness (a.k.a. documentary poetry or information poetry).
Some of us live in difficult circumstances: war, repression of minorities, lack of civil freedoms, economic hardship; all of us live in times of change be it climate change, species extinction, technological or political change; and nearly all of us have been affected in some way by the global pandemic of COVID-19.
Locally too there’s change – historic houses are demolished, new roads installed. Just last week in Victoria West of Melbourne, a tree believed to be sacred to the traditional owners and thought to be well over three hundred years old was cut down so that road widening could proceed (without the expense of installing a bend in the road around the trees).
So, what’s a poet to do?
Here’s Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s ‘Instead of a Preface’ to her poem Requiem
‘During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’. On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never inher life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear(everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face. [The 1st of April in the year 1957. Leningrad]
There’s a long tradition of witness in poetry. From Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, the ancient Sanskrit epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, through to the Romantic poets in England writing during a time of political upheaval and social upheaval of the industrial revolution. War too has been a source of poetry: Whitman and other poets witnessed and wrote on the US Civil War and here’s Spring Offensive by English World War I poet Wilfred Owen
Halted against the shade of a last hill,
They fed, and, lying easy, were at ease
And, finding comfortable chests and knees
But many there stood still
To face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge,
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world.
In the tumultuous Partition of India in 1947, arguably the most influential poem was by the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz: “Subh-e-Azadi” (“Dawn of Independence”), which captures the failed dream of a post-colonial subcontinent:
“This is not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom,
we had set out in sheer longing,
so sure that somewhere in its desert the sky harbored
a final haven for the stars, and we would find it.
That’s right poets, witness poetry is right in our wheelhouse. Ian Nowak, who has documented the US and Chinese coal mining industry in his 2009 book Coal Mountain Elementary, defines documentary poetry as:
As I was thinking about this prompt, I was struck by how selective news is: what gets reported and what doesn’t. No great insight I know but in a week of momentous political change, here in Australia The Melbourne Cup horse race (once the richest horse race in Australia) was run in a mostly empty stadium (and one horse was euthanised after breaking down during the race); on a stormy Saturday a friend’s father finally succumbed to heart disease; and a man in Brisbane was saved from his burning house by his parrot that screeched him awake after his fire alarms had failed (I know Brisbane is not quite my neighbourhood but it’s a wonderful story). And of course, there were numerous other ‘normal life’ things: babies were born; people married, divorced; someone missed the school bus; someone came off their motorbike; and someone gave up the drink for good this time.
So tonight poets, let’s bear witness in our local neighbourhood. Look at your local paper (if you still have such a thing), find a publicly reported event, a tree planting or a tree felling, a dam opening or a landslide. Perhaps something you witnessed personally – whatever inspires.
- Write a poem about it.
- Post it on your blog.
- Link it up to our Mr. Linky.
- Importantly, visit other blogs, enjoy some amazing poets
- and above all have fun.
And while you’re busy doing that, I’ll end tonight’s broadcast of local news with the Weather Forecast for the British Isles from the Master Singers (from 1966).