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Carolyn Forch?’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper

Carolyn Forch? is known as a political poet, calling herself a "poet of

witness" [source]. Growing up in Detroit in the 1950’s, poet Carolyn

Forch? recalls discovering photographs from a Nazi concentration camp in Look

Magazine. After her mother confiscated the journal and hid it, young Forche re-confiscated

it, marking perhaps the beginning of a poetic vocation devoted to exposing tyranny,

injustice, and bearing witness to the atrocities of the 20th century.

Born one of seven children to a Czech-American housewife and a tool and die maker,

Forch? describes herself as a “junkheap Catholic” perennially drawn to issues

of social justice. The winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize for her volume Gathering

the Tribes (1976), Forch?’s work sustained a remarkable shift following a year

spent on a Guggenheim fellowship in El Salvador. Working closely with Archbishop Oscar

Humberto Romero, human rights activist later killed by right-wing assassins, Forch?

assisted in finding people who had disappeared and in reporting their whereabouts to

Amnesty International. The shock of witnessing countless atrocities in Central

America generated the volume The Country Between Us (1981), which stirred

immediate controversy because of its overt politics: “My new works seemed

controversial to my American contemporaries who argued against the right of a North

American to contemplate such issues in her work, or against any mixing of what they saw as

the mutually exclusive realms of the personal and the political.” Forch? ’s

“orchid-like” reputation was tarnished forever. One publisher agreed to publish

the collection only if the poet would agree to balance images of war-torn El

Salvador with lighter poems on more traditional subjects. Forch? refused. After much

encouragement from fellow writer Margaret Atwood, Forch? sent the manuscript to Harper

and Row and obtained a contract just three days later. Perhaps the most disturbing and

memorable poem in the volume is “The Colonel”– a prose poem in which the

speaker conveys with chilling flatness a horrific story:

[. . . .]

In The Angel of History (1994), Forch? turns away from first-person,

lyric-narrative form in an effort to engage in a poetic meditation which examines, on a

broader scale, the accumulation of a century of atrocities. Divided into five parts, the

first three

sections follow the narrator as she floats like an angel through the ruins of

Europe–leading to death camps and across time to

more recent events such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The Angel of History

functions as a meditation on the possibility of

history itself–evoking the speech of those who have otherwise been forgotten. Taking her

title for the volume from Walter

Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Forche draws a connection

between the poet’s role and that of the angel.

Aware of the approaching millennium, the poet/angel warns: “The worst is over/ the

worst is yet to come. . .”

[. . . . ]

Commenting on the threads which seem to connect all the disparate voices, Forch? notes

: “What I discovered was that extremity does mark language. Language fragments at the

core of trauma, no matter what the subject matter, if a poet comes out of prison after a

long time and writes about snowflakes, I began to sense that you could see the prison in

the snowflakes.”

The question of the possibility of poetry in a century of horrors circulates throughout

the volume, and poets such as Brecht

struggle with the undeniable responsibility which comes with language:

“What kind of times are these/ when a talk about trees is almost a crime/because

it implies silence about so many horrors?”

Over the years Forch?’s quest to understand the individual’s struggle with

social upheaval and political turmoil has taken her from El Salvador to the occupied West

Bank, Lebanon, and South Africa. Her preoccupation with silence is, as Calvin Bedient

notes, “so profound it approximates prayer,” and has culminated in a new genre

of North American poetry–the poetry of witness. [source]Online Interview with Forch?

Carolyn Forche doesn’t shy away from atrocity. The power she wields makes the political

horrifyingly real.

Hers is a vital voice, bearing witness to the sins of the world and showing how people

live through it.

Her latest collection is The Angel of History. She says the poems in it are

less about experiences and more "consciousness of passing through them."

"I’m attempting to show the voice of the soul through this," she said during

a phone interview from her Maryland home.

Forche seems to speak of her own voice in the poem "The Notebook of

Uprising": "You loved the shabbiness of the world: countries invaded, cities

bombed, houses whose roofs have fallen in, / women who have lost their men, orphans,

amputees, the war wounded. / What you did not love any longer was a world that had lost

its soul."

"Yes, that’s an important line," she said. "It’s a deep spiritual worry

that I have."

She offers haunting images: a blank-eyed boy aimlessly pedaling a bicycle with a naked

broken doll in its basket, crows descending on a child to pull hair for their nests, a

baby crawling over its dead mother seeking milk. These she seems to draw into her,

embracing them with a kind of maternal love.

It’s the search for the world’s soul that is more troubling.

"And the world is worse now than it was then," she writes in the voice of a

woman whose husband was a soldier fighting the Nazis.

Spanning decades and continents, the ambitious The Angel of History was 14

years in the writing, and a lifetime in the making.

Forche (pronounced For-SHAY) began writing at her mother’s encouragement when she was

9, and seriously at 19. By 24, she had published Gathering the Tribes, a

collection of poems that spoke of the bonds between families. She recalls her childhood

and adolescence, calls upon her ancestors, delves into American Indian culture and

explores her emerging sexuality in this volume.

She invokes the memory of a Slovak grandmother whose "hands were like wheat rolls

shelling snow peas," who "knew how much grease / How deep to seed / That cukes

were crawlers." She recalls waiting in a pony stall "for a boy / To come, circle

his tongue / In my mouth" and loving a woman: "With her palms she / spread my

calves, she / moved my heels from each other."

Her work then lead her to the poetry of Salvadorian writers. She translated Claribel

Algeria’s Flowers from the Volcano and she also co-authored Women in the

Labor Movement.

This then "lead to human rights work," she said of her experience as an

activist in El Salvador. She lectured on human rights and was a correspondent for National

Public Radio in Beruit.

"The human rights work lead to socially engaging poetry," she said of her

collection The Country Between Us. The book was controversial at the time in its

awakening of political consciousness.

One of its most noted poems, "The Colonel," tells of how the man at a dinner

party in his home "returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many

human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say


Rather than recoil in horror at the almost surreal experiences of human cruelty, Forche

shows how people survive in an unbearable world.

After she was changed forever by what she had seen and experienced, she was moved to

find other poets of witness, other writers who had the ability to tell of atrocities

humans commit against each other. She compiled and edited a collection, Against

Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness.

"During the gathering of these poems, The Angel of History came

out," she said. The poems trace the landscape of France, Japan and Germany and the

effects of war on the land and its people.

The book is in homage to Jewish German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who died in 1940.

She prefaces the book with a quote from Benjamin that the angel of history sees the past

as "one single catastrophe" and that he would "like to make whole what has

been smashed" but is rendered helpless by the future.

When Forche reads from her work, she hopes her words will stir her listeners, move them

forward. "I enjoy creating a community with an audience," she said. "I’m

always hoping the audience will be somehow moved to thoughtful contemplation in some


A dynamic storyteller and reader of her work, Forche said she has always enjoyed

performing. "When I was a child in Catholic school, the nuns encouraged me to read

interpretively," she said. "It seemed coincidental to writing when I was growing


Consequently, when she speaks her work, the words come alive from the page, as relevant

now as when she first wrote them.

from Rambles: a cultural arts

magazine. "Carloyn

Forche: Facing up to the Atrocities. An Interview by Daina Savage, September 1996.

David W. Faulkner Introduces


at the NYS Summer Writers Institute, 7/2/97

I don’t know if Detroit produces poets of conscience routinely, but I do know that two

of the best such poets, and two of the best poets by any measure are Philip Levine and

Carolyn Forch?, and both are from Detroit. Oh, Detroit has produced other great

"writers," among them Gerry Milligan and John Lee Hooker, and doubtless other

great poets, but Carolyn Forch? stands in relief.

When Forch?’s, Gathering the Tribes was published in 1975, Stanley Kunitz’s

selection that year for the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize, Kenneth Rexroth wrote with

prescience: "Carolyn Forch? is beyond question the best woman poet to appear in the

Yale Younger Poet series since Muriel Rukeyser, whom in a special way she somewhat

resembles. She is far better education than most poets, not just in school, but in life..

.She is also something nobody ever seemed to be able to find in the 30’s whe they

were in demand–a genuine proletarian poet."

Rexroth was stumbling, more for what Forch? herself later called the poetry of witness

than the poetry of political class, but the comparison to Rukeyser is nontheless inviting.

I happily remember sitting in the library room of the Yale University Press more than

twenty years ago to witness the emergence of a poet of stature, certainly the best writer

in the series to have come along in a good while, man or woman. I remember still an

electrcity in the room during her reading, an echo of Gertrude Stein’s acknowledgement of

good writing: the bell rings. What I most remember is the satisfied smile on Kunitz’s

avuncular and beatific face. He knew his choice was right. Forch?’s second book, The

Country Between Us, published in 1982, focused on El Salvador, and fully announced a

poetry of conscience. At the time, she said in an interview, when asked about whether she

was an activist writer, and whether such writers have an obligation to speak out for human


"I believe that citizens have an obligation to act upon or voice support

for their principles in this regard. No special obligation accrues to writers. My human

rights activism has arisen out of this moral and social obligation. I have felt that that

is one particular work and my poetry is another work, so rather than referring to myself

as an activist poet, I might perhaps accept the idea of being an activist and a

poet. The point at which they intersect is something artistically circumstantial. I didn’t

determine to write poems with a certain subject matter. Poetry can’t be placed in the

servce of anything other than itself."

That last line is most powerful to me, for it gets at the way in which Forch?’s poetry

never leaves what is at the core of its nature: truth-seeking through memorable speech.

And as such, poetry is work that partakes of the transformative vision: to see, transform,

and thereby transcend, subsuming all that has come before, a process which is at the heart

of all artistic endeavor.

I had organized a reading for Country that was memorable, not just for its

poetric jeremiads and the overall stunning brilliance of Carolyn’s work, like a light cast

upon the reaches of the soul hitherto held in darkness, but also for two young men vying

for Carolyn’s attention (unbeknownst to her), who ended up in a parking lot fight. At

issue was my copy of the book, but it had somehow come to represent, metonymically?

synecdochically? Carolyn’s attention. The one was arrested, the other got

black eye. I’m not sure who got the book, but I never saw it again.

In the early 90’s, Carolyn Forch? produced a work of editing almost as moving as her

poetry, "Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness." People, save

for those who edit, seldom approach an act of editing as anything approaching a work of

art, but this work, the design of it, like good cabinetry, or architecture, allows both

the poems contained and the reader reading a place, a place to dwell, and to remember. A

place to join the stand against forgetting.

In the Introduction to that work, Forch? wrote:

"Something happed along the way to the introspective poet I had been. My new work

seemed controversial to my American contemporaries, who argued against its ’subject

matter,’ or against the right of a North American to contemplate such issues in her work,

or against any mixing of what they saw as the mutually exclusive realms of the personal

and the political. Like many other poets, I felt I had no real choice regarding the

impulse of my poems, and had only to wait, in meditative expectancy. In attempting to come

to terms with the question of poetry and politics, I turned to the work of Anna Akhmatova,

Yanni Ritsos, Paul Celan, Fredrico Garcia Lorca, Nazim Hikmet, and others. I began

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