Review #100: ‘Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001′ edited by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu

forche wu cover
  • COLDFRONT RATING: two-half
  • PUBLISHED BY: W.W. Norton, 2014
  • REVIEW BY: Timothy Liu

forche wuWanted to go out of this 100/100 project with a bang but will have to settle for a whimper. This anthology is a misfire. A companion to Forché’s Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (a seminal must-have from two decades back and available used online for less than two bucks), it’s aims are noble, rounding up English-language poems from the past five centuries written out of the extremity of “war, imprisonment, torture, expectation of imminent death, exile, or slavery, have pointed us in the right direction, while commitment to politically loaded causes, and (on occasion) involvement in espionage, are recurrent themes.” Woot! From Shakespeare to Milton to Blake to Dickinson to obscurities like Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) and May Wedderburn Cannan (1893-1973), what we learn from the introductory biocapsules on each is that, yes, they indeed were there at a particular historical movement right up against unspeakable atrocity and were able to find the wherewithal to leave behind a few words of witness, but does that also mean that those particular moments were fodder for memorable poems, if not their best work? Most of the meatiest chunks from the past century have ended up in Forché’s former Against Forgetting, with a few exceptions herewith (including selections from William Stafford or the one selection from Thom Gunn). Peruse the Table of Contents and judge for yourselves.