Poet Carolyn Forché gathers 500 years of suffering in new anthology

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: capturing the full range of the human experience on the page.

Jeff is back with our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Poets write of many things, of love, of nature, of their own interior lives. From at least the time of Homer to our own, they have also written of war, political upheaval, national tragedies, the dark things that people do to one another.

A new anthology looks at this tradition as it's played out in English literature. It's called "Poetry of Witness," co-edited by Carolyn Forche and Duncan Wu.

Ms. Forche joins me now, a professor of English at Georgetown University. She is herself an acclaimed poet who's written of strife in Central America and elsewhere.

And welcome to you.

CAROLYN FORCHE, "Poetry of Witness": Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: First what, do you mean by poetry of witness? What does that mean?

CAROLYN FORCHE: "Poetry of Witness" is written by poets who endured conditions of extremity, who passed through the suffering of warfare, imprisonment, forced exile, censorship, banning orders.

They passed through these experiences. Their language also passed through it. And they write in the aftermath. And their language articulates that suffering. It becomes legible in the poems.

JEFFREY BROWN: As I go through it here, it's almost like an alternative history, or the news, and I was thinking about what we do on this program.

CAROLYN FORCHE: We felt that we were reading back through 500 years of English-language poetry to find out what happened in the aftermath of all of the wars and everything that — all of the upheaval in England and her former colonies. This is all English-language poetry.

And we felt that this was a new way of reading it, that we have discovered something very special, and that is that poets have always been embroiled in the events of their times in history. And they have always spoken of it in their work. And we have gathered it all together in one place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think — I mention that you have done this kind of work, and I have read it for many years. How do you think about it personally? I mean, do, you think of yourself as a witness, to use your word, or a reporter, in a sense, or as poet first?

CAROLYN FORCHE: Well, I have been in countries at war, especially when I was younger, by force of circumstance, in the beginning as a translator, and then accompanying my husband, who was a journalist.

And I was very deeply affected by it. And some of that experience emerged in the poems. And at first, everyone was saying, oh, it's political. These are political poems. But I thought, we have to think about this more deeply. We have to open a space for reading work that emerges in the aftermath of violence and conflict, and not politicize it, but actually understand it as a kind of outcry of the soul.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of the — many of the poems are directly about war, for example.

But then you include someone like Emily Dickinson. We don't think of her as a war poet. We think of her sitting at home, right, and yet what?

CAROLYN FORCHE: We think of her in the white dress up in her room, but she wrote most of her poems during the Civil War. And in her letters, we find laments over the war dead. She knew many combatants. The war was very much in her mind.

She even said at one point in a letter, I am singing from the charnel steps. I'm singing from the tomb that's holding the bones and the bodies. And she's very poignant in her letters in this regard. And so we found some poems that she had actually written and published in "Drum Beat," which was a magazine that was dedicated to raising funds to help soldiers with medical supplies.

So she was engaged and effective, and she lived in a country in a time of war, and so she's included here.

JEFFREY BROWN: You take us through of course many of the famous World War I poets and then World War II and after.

I'm just wondering, in our last minute here, about where we are today. There's a lot of talk about contemporary poetry being more inward, people writing about themselves. Is there still a sense of writing about the world, about what's happening?

CAROLYN FORCHE: The tradition continues in all countries, even our own.

Our veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam, the wars that we have been engaged in, in the last several decades, are writing, and we have some very poignant and masterful poems that have come of it. Unfortunately, it continues. And our poets continue to speak of it, and they aren't silencing themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, we have asked you to read a number of those poems that we're going to put online.


JEFFREY BROWN: And we invite the audience to go take a look at those.

And I thank you for that.


JEFFREY BROWN: And the new anthology is "Poetry of Witness," co-edited by Duncan Wu and Carolyn Forche. Thank you very much.