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Poetry of Witness

April 2017

It has become very difficult for me to watch the news the past year - and yet I have watched more news than ever before. I suspect the same may be true for many of you.

The news creeps into my poems, though I think I have intentionally tried to keep it out. There is so much anger, deceit and ugliness in the news that I don't want it in my poems.

But poets have a tradition of being witnesses and reporters of their times. When I came upon the poem "Let America be America Again" by Langston Hughes the title echoed at a slant to me like the Donald Trump "Make America Great Again" campaign hat-mantra.
His poem begins:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

In Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, edited by poet Carolyn Forché, over 140 poets who "endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the twentieth century—through exile, state censorship, political persecution, house arrest, torture, imprisonment, military occupation, warfare, and assassination write and give poetic witness to the times in which they lived.

Against Forgetting is organized according to historical tragedy, starting with the Armenian Genocide and proceeding through the twentieth century to the pro-democratic demonstrations in China. Each section is preceded by a short statement that gives historical background for the events in order to place the poems in a proper context. Within the sections, the poets are organized chronologically according to their year of birth and editor Forché presents a brief biographical note elucidating the poet’s personal experiences with the historical situation.

A companion volume to Against Forgetting, Poetry of Witness, collects 300 poems composed while their authors awaited execution, endured imprisonment, fought on the battlefield, or labored on the brink of breakdown or death.

We all bear witness to historical events, hopefully not as extreme as those situation, and some poets choose to write about them. These anthologies argue that such poets are a perennial feature of human history.

These poems reveal the ways in which tragic events leave marks upon the imagination.

Even poems that do not explicitly take historical events as their main subject matter may contain the events beneath the surface of the language.

In “Some Days” by Philip Terman from his collection Our Portion, there is that feeling some of us might have now of not wanting to bear witness.

Carolyn Forché's own prose poem, "The Colonel," is a powerful and disturbing "documentary poem" that started as a prose piece that reached her editor who felt it was a poem. Read the poem and hear Forché introduce and read it.

This month our writing prompt is to write a poem of witness, a documentary poem based on something in the current news from anywhere in the world. What event is affecting you? How has it entered you and your life? What can you say about it that may be helpful to others today and in the future? You own situation need not be that you "endured conditions of historical and social extremity" and the event may not be one that has attracted national or worldwide attention. In fact, it may be that those events are the ones that need you as witness.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


Almost midnight on June 11, 2016,
And, as he mulls mint leaves, the young bartender overhears
What he hears every weekend:
Through the driving dance rhythms,
The stages of romance.

From a pair at the end of the bar,
The pretty one says,
“This is just what I mean.
“You’re late again, and when you do show up,
“I still have to buy my own Mojito.
“All my friends are right,
“You’re suffocating me,
“With your control, your self-pity.
“Not to mention your infidelities.
“Christ, just because you play a Storm Trooper at Disney World,
“You think you’re a celebrity and deserve special allowances.
“I finally realized I’d be better off alone.
“If it wasn’t for the expense of the apartment,
“I’d have left you months ago.
“I just need to start a new life, one in which I can breathe.”

And from the other end of the bar,
There’s a couple who’ve just met.
The shorter, paunchier one says,
“Well, I can see by those legs why Universal hired you as a dancer.
“I hope you don’t mind my saying
“There’s something about your blue eyes that drives me crazy.
“And I should tell you right up front, I’m a bit of a psychic.
“I can see us at a rum bar in Key West,
“Then watching the sun set at Mallory Square,
“Before strolling down Duval Street to our favorite B and B.
“But it’s early.
“Let me buy you a Mojito and tell you how the spirits see our lives together.”

Turning back to the register,
The bartender thinks that he’d like to introduce the second pair to the first.
If he gets a chance, maybe he will,
But right now, he has a hundred Mojitos to mix.

Ron Yazinski


Tell us about their boycotts
what they'd fought for
back in the dark days
and we say back
yet we're in our present dark
brothers to brothers
struck for telling their wants
shoulder to shoulder
kicked for saying I won't
they hadn't known then
their sons would be
teaching themselves
scouting scary corners
as they had, longing
gunned at, misery released
What's it said in history?
marvelous streak of bravery
and they'd adapted easily
better reality, nothing they'd known
What of now?
What's to adapt to now?
millions corrupting your integrity
or your packing for your fleeing
leaving us behind our new God?
yet there, in your blaming voice
celebrating mockery, their holidays
but its our empty laughter you should hear
blaming laziness you gave us
spoken like a black person
born to a silver spoon
you handy though, then why?
Freedom you promised, where is it?
free t-shirts, free housing
keeping us on our holes with scrubs
whilst your shirts washed by our mothers
forgot who you are
need I remind you, marks under our feet
perhaps the graveyard abandoned
perhaps where tears have fallen
and ancestral land shook?
angry marks
reddened where welts used to go
skeletons walking aimlessly
In the beats of our hearts
screaming for change
our lungs raw, and screaming louder
followed by want
for better we know to never get
We know you remember
when you take again ours
We know you remember

Sia Morweng


on morning walks I step over snails
I bend to look at them
all sizes and shapes
much like my two legged friends
one neighbor steps on the gorgeous shells
the noise breaks my heart

I step over puddles and dog poop
I step on cracks and cigarette butts

there are places in the world
where playgrounds hold landmines

fields of explosives
live under flowers, grass, rice, wheat
children run with kites
the mothers can't imagine anything else
one child steps on a shell
the thought breaks my heart

Patty Joslyn


He’s learned the art of cleaning chimneys
in our land of seasonal snows, damps, and smoke
from wood-stoves rising in winter skies.
Now it’s spring-cleaning. Santos comes down
the ladder grimy with soot. He still speaks
with the lilt of his homeland. How did he come
here to a neighbor’s roof – to this country?
Legally? or on foot across desert,
traveling at night to save him from the heat,
praying for the next water; wondering
if he’d make it. Desert of cinder cones and cactus
blooming Pascua-yellow and crimson flowers.
Skilled at many tasks we’ve lost
the knack for, Santos teaches his son –
born here – to be his helper. Families meant
to stay together. Now he’ll climb
to another rooftop, let the Land-of-the-Free
breeze cool him at his work. This man
whose mother named him Saints
so far below Heaven.

Taylor Graham


Poetry begins as a lump in the throat ?
Yeah, and so does cancer of the larynx
and how in hell is a piece of writing
that actually demands to be read
by the literate. . .

when the reigning idiocy raining tawdry
tinseled, dubbed-in, laugh-meter culture
some jagged jangled devil’s tongue
pretending-to-be young - television
designed to rot the brain - is there
to ensure you go insane,
lose touch - no, not the tube itself
that could have been the path -
a highway even - to great new forums
universities, agoras, guarantor
of genuine informed and beneficent
liberty - but that is not what it became
now it’s worse than crack cocaine

and you are all fucking hooked -
a nation culturally poorer
than the shaman-peoples of the Amazon
or the natives of Papua New Guinea
Oh all opinions are equal?
That’s as good as the Frost quote
and you can quote me on it -
Listen, you no longer have opinions
friend, only regurgitations - or worse
pricetags – and no one can heal
those who do not recognize
how slavishly, terminally ill they are
grinning in their self-satisfied
fatuous degeneracy
When every ignoramus thinks
he’s “equal” to the teacher?
Honey, that’s worse than plague,
and primed and prime-timed
to wipe out twice as many as
meth or the new Black Death
When the only half-sane speech
is that small voice of some outcast
off-line, side-lined heretic
or the prophet come ranting home
from mindless savage wars
to a world of nobody cares.

He sits there by the state house stairs
with his cardboard sign proclaiming
his faith in an afterlife
next to his amputated leg
and who can blame him wanting to
get his fair share somewhere
where he won't have to beg
Yes, anyone who turns the thing on
to watch that puppet show they call the news
is stone crazy, as The News is precisely
what it hides, behind botoxed dead balloons
what you get is Punch and Judy – driving
my bewitched countrymen crazier than loons
When even the irreplaceably magnificent
old stone bridge is treated
like some icetray school, every
train or sidewalk indiscriminately –
wall-to-wall graffiti – no hope
remains of a peaceable treaty
no one left to sign one anyway
no one capable of reading anything
more sustained than the narrow side
of a large box of cornflakes -
[dear Fred, how my heart aches]
And they have convinced everyone
that every child is an artist
deserving of attention
better than honorable mention
because one tagger is now in a museum -
or center-align: see, it's not hard
just about anyone's as good as The Bard

They've sold you an equality
that absorbs all trace of beauty
like a sugar cube in latte.
that is how they do it – don't dare laugh
that is part of the essential lie – don’t
believe for a second that that is
duh, some kind of accident.
They are not intelligent, no
no, merely clever and the road
to hell is paved with
new marketing strategies
All is splintered, shattered
as if nothing mattered or nearly
just paycheck and year-end bonus
well, jackass, the onus is on you
to undo it – to unsubscribe
while you still have a synapse
and a neurone you can call your own
The light is being siphoned from the sky
not night, no – just dreadful dark
dim and barren – dry
if there should fall a spark
on such diminished days
when dew is laced with acid
we’d all be set ablaze -
then falls the final curtain
of this I am immensely certain –
me, who 'til now
was never sure of anything!
For we’ve been taken in
while so few were looking out
the soil has grown so thin
salmon gone - and trout
and all we loved is dead
or dying and every
molecule of the cabbage
in your head’s been tattooed tv –
no, don’t dare turn it off
it’s probably being
tracked anyway - just put it
in the attic, or the cellar
or turn down the sound
and turn its sickly grey face
to the wall and try to revive your soul
or some other-named princely essence
that was you at birth and has now
gone numb with poundings as
I shake my weary head
and sigh a century of sighs
in unwelcome surroundings
hearing a low whistle in the dark -

you could have had a dozen
Chopins and a Mahler or two
but instead you chose endless
ever-flimsier reincarnations
of Dick or Petula Clark.

Timea Deinhardt


Thru the centuries
A plague upon our house
Lives besieged by bloodshed and brutality
Hatred, fear, despair and death
People fleeing on foot, by boat, by bus
I cannot help but wonder if the birds remain to sing their songs
And if not who will witness their going or recall their existence?
From above, food and medicine drop from the sky
No fresh direct, no corner of happy and healthy, no peace sold on Amazon
A kind stranger offers chips to hungry children
A boat sinks, a bus explodes
Fill in the number of more dead
The stranger was not kind
Lured by a treat…
Another bomb explodes
…and the children are dead too
I watch the news; I do not watch the news
I read the stories, see the pictures
There but for the grace of God
I turn away, I turn back
Because I can
Like switching channels
Don't like what you see
Seek something else
Or like the Levite, walk away all together
Close your eyes, don't look, don't read
A hungry, thirsty stranger speaks across the millennia
Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing
Do not oppress the sojourner
You cannot be a real believer unless
you want for your brother what you want for yourself
Say Jesus, Jeremiah, and Muhammad
On the road to Jericho or Iraq, Iran, Syria or Somalia,
Central America, Burma, Congo or Mexico
Do we stop for the fallen stranger?
Do we ask who is neighbor, who is not?
If you claim a God, I ask, what would your God do?
What? No prophet, no savior, no God? No matter
Believers or not, yet witnesses all
Now, listen up, if I call your name, please go stand with the refugees:
Grandma, grandpa, Jesus, Muhammad, Anne Frank, Albert Einstein, the Dalai Lama…
“..the homeless, tempest-tossed ...” but instead we talk of walls and travel bans
At what cost would we forget Lazarus' words?
Or those of Mother T “… we have forgotten that we belong to one another”
Or those of a father to his cub “remember who you are”
To witness, to share a burden – faith or no
To save not just our brothers and sisters and ourselves
but our very humanity
And that, that is what makes us great

Terri J. Guttilla


The plane flies its predetermined route
pregnant with ignorance
disguised as strength,
birthing blastwaves of super heated air,
and jackbooted fork tongued poisonous darts
of lies as projections as truth.

The truth is that when something
fails on a level so miserably,
and publicly
that no one wants to see
the performance repeated ever again,
we call it a bomb.

We call it a bomb,
this Mother of All Bombs,
this weapon of supreme shock
that explodes above the ground,
creating a downward force on the earth,
obliterating everything in its path.

Everything in its path has come
from another century.
The Bible notes the Moabites were
looked down upon for being
idolatrous and incestuous,
as theirs was considered a barbaric
form of the destruction of humanity.

The destruction of humanity begins
when we are instructed to worship
that which destroys humanity,
and we comply.

Anita Sanz


We friendly midnight poker players
Use to talk of world events
Or the chances that Apple
Will own the world, and Steven Jobs
Though dead is like Walt Disney,
(One controlling the material world
The other a world of fantasy)
Is frozen stiff in Antarctica
And on the iceberg of Titanic fame
Still floating around the Atlantic
Where things are getting hotter or colder.
Now the waves are overwhelming
The south shore of our summer houses
Which we can barely afford in the first place.
We long time buddies are stuffed geese
When the news and current events
Are forced upon us;
We prefer to waddle around
Being aware that Time has penned us in.
Nate, the pharmacist talks
Of all the latest news, the remedies
In the back pages filled with ads
For Prostate and ED cures
And easy flow, no drips are here
Because Buffet not prepping
To sell anything, but buying for eternity.
And the most pathetic joke
In the morning newspaper
Is reading the obits
To see if we are still alive.

Edward Halperin


You told me you were eating a crayfish sandwich
before choir in your usual Covent Garden cafe.
They were only schoolkids sitting by the window
holding hands across the table, faces shining.

You told me you were checking your music folder
drinking your cappuccino, minding your business
when you heard raised voices, a cry, loud shouting.
He hit me, the girl sobbed. My boyfriend's just hit me.

You told me that not one person responded.
They slid into teacups, iPhones, Evening Standards,
deaf and blind to the whole commotion.
But you kept on looking, saw him grip the girl's arm.

You told me you got up, walked slowly towards them
avoided his gaze, looked directly at her.
Now people were riveted as you smiled, said gently
Why not come and sit with me for a while?

You told me the schoolgirl followed you over
flicked back her blond hair to reveal the red wheal.
Has he done this before? Have you told anybody?
He tells me he loves me, she said with a sigh.

You told me the boyfriend shoved his chair back,
approached you, eyes blazing, body a coil.
Two men who had earlier ignored the situation
stood up, stood firm, said, Leave them alone.

You told me the boy just shrugged his young shoulders
You could hear him swear as he swaggered away.
The girl's face softened, tears started falling.
He tells me he loves me, she said with a sigh.

You told me you delved down into your work bag
for a leaflet you carry on domestic violence.
What are the chances of needing that number
while eating a sandwich before choir, you laughed.

You told me that someone had to do something
and this time that someone turned out to be you.
I told you you were brave, a fine young woman.
I was scared Mum, you said. Me too, me too.

Jocelyn Dacie


“Anon out of the earth a Fabric huge
Rose like an Exhalation...” John Milton. Paradise Lost (I. 710-11).
Spread against the morning sky the glow rises
behind the trees, numinous above the site, as
headlights stream across the bridge and quires
of workers start their day: cranes hover, metallic
spires pierce the naked morning dark; slowly,
floor by floor, the building rises from the marsh
of Spring Creek beside the artery from the city’s
central core.

As, on the African savanna, termites work hour-
by-hour, day-by-day, to raise their cooling tower
ever higher above the burning plain, so metalworkers
ply their trade, elevating beams above ground on
which to hang the glittering walls that define the
locus of another holy shrine whose corporate global
power reigns above all gods man has ever raised
on high.

The world’s intensely religious, totally corrupt;
everyone bows, not to the East, but to the Market,
uncontested now by ancient creed or modern ism,
whose gods, as pitiless as Zeus, or Yahweh, or Allah,
blindly demand their daily sacrifice of flesh and
blood: to rape and pillage, kill and maim the weak
at will, unconstrained—to take, and take again, until
nothing’s left.

So cathedrals rise from out the mud, built by the
sweat and need of men, forged from the iron
and coal of earth, built on the pain and care of
those who live and die in want and poverty; thrusting
upward, beam by beam, they proclaim our insurrection
against all constraints of time and space that we may
wreak our will, become as gods, and stride the fallen
earth, unbound.

The headlights flow into the site, the fabric rises
ever higher day by day, the standing pines are
dwarfed by glass and steel, and hosannas
peal across the land proclaiming the glories of the
coming age.

Robert Miller