I just wrote a ridiculous and unnecessarily long email about poetry to an undergraduate professor and it's so rare that I write anything lately that's not work-related, I thought perhaps I should save it somewhere for posterity. (Also: POETRY! Oh yeah! That's that thing I love!)
[Context: We were discussing a quote from the philosopher Theodor Adorno, who said “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” These are poems that I think are doing interesting things in light of that quote, figuring out how to address atrocities in the changed consciousness of the latter half of the twentieth century.]
From Geoffrey Hill -- two Holocaust poems:
- September Song -- I have some commentary on both poems at this link, and their connection to Adorno specifically
- Ovid in the Third Reich
These poems both also bring in the idea of persona (see other confessional poets too: Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Robert Lowell); inventing a self to dialogue with or explore horrors.
Carolyn Forche is known for coining the term poetry of witness, about writing that focuses on documenting and confronting atrocities. She spent time in El Salvador during the civil war, which is what a lot of her poetry focuses on, including The Colonel. You can read some of what she's said about poetry of witness here: I really like the end of the second piece (from where it begins "This is a poetry that presents the American reader with an interesting interpretive problem.") She also has a great anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness.
One interesting thing to consider: there were people writing poems about war and tragedies long before Adorno or Carolyn Forche came along. What separates them from the post-Auschwitz era? And from the idea of the poetry of witness? (It may be that there’s not a real difference. This is something I'm still mulling over.)
Some other poems that I mentally put in the same category, finding new ways to engage with the nightmarish:
- Written in pencil in the sealed railway car, Dan Pagis - a Holocaust survivor
- Tortures, Wislawa Szymborska - Polish; Eastern European poets have a LOT of insight into the ugliness of political ideology intersecting with poetry in the wrong ways
- A Brief for the Defense, Jack Gilbert - this has a bit of problematic (colonial?) imagery in it, but I think he's one of the absolute master poets of the 20th century
- What the Living Do, Marie Howe - an AIDS poem, but more generally a survivor poem
- When Leather is a Whip, Martín Espada
On a completely related note, it's almost the end of January which means it's almost April which means NATIONAL POETRY MONTHAPALOOZA and guys, GUYS, this is going to be my TENTH FUCKING YEAR doing this thing. I want to do something special to celebrate. But I don't know what. E-extra emails linking to some of this huge, glorious backlog from all the past years? .... something else? GIVE ME IDEAS.