This book is the work of those marked by history. It contains poets whose lives were shaped by insurmountable forces, thrown off course, even – at worst – destroyed. Some of these poems were composed at an extreme of human endurance, on the brink of breakdown or death; all bear witness to historical event, and the irresistibility of its impact.
To William Meredith, the [poet’s engagement with the world is a matter of conscience, for “the imperfections of society . . . can only be responded to militantly, by poet and reader.” As he saw it, the distinctive experience of life in the twentieth century, with its perils and pitfalls, obliged him to act as a dissident: it was, he said, “the most urgent role at a time like ours.” Readers play their part in this process: Carolyn Forche argues for witness as “a mode of reading rather than of writing, of readerly encounter with the literature of that-which-happened, and its mode is evidentiary rather than representational – as evidentiary, in fact, as spilled blood.” If the function of the reader is to encounter ‘the literature of that-which-happened,” that of the artist is to testify – one to which writers are compelled by their relation to words. Forche observes that ‘poetic language attempts a coming to terms with evil and its embodiments, and there are appeals for a shared sense of humanity and collective resistance. These principles provide the basis of this book.
Although the concept of witness is the product of the last century, and hitherto applied to the writers of that time, this volume argues it is found elsewhere. Indeed, there is no lack of it in the canon. Why should that be? In part, it bears out Forche’s contention in her introduction to Against Forgetting, that the concentration of contemporary poets on the realm of the personal, almost to the point of myopia, is peculiar to recent times. Prior to that, poets commonly discussed experiences shared by the larger community in which they lived.
There is another reason. The experiences that compel our poets are frequently beyond the containing power of language. Forche quotes Paul Celan: language “had to go through its own responselessness, go through its horrible silences, go through the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech.” The connection between the outside world and a work of art that testifies to its atrocities is unclear and, to a large extent, unknowable. The initial response of the imagination is silence, language seems inadequate to the task of articulating fully our reactions to the extremes of experience.
It might be argued there is little new in this for the poetry of witness, despite its theoretical origins in the discourse of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, has always been the means by which the imagination has articulated its response to war, imprisonment, oppression, and enslavement. Like Celan, we argue that, of all genres, poetry is best suited to the task. We refer to its ability to accommodate the sublime, the ineffable, that of which we cannot speak. This is admittedly a Romantic argument and, perhaps for that reason, its application to poetry predating the French Revolution might be thought irrational. Yet preromantic poets come as close to discussing emotions beyond verbal formulation as their successors, not the least in the case of Wyatt’s “Sighs are my food,” written during what he had every reason to expect would be his final imprisonment, or Surrey’s “The storms are passed, these clouds are overblown,” composed within days, perhaps hours, of his beheading.
Poetry of Witness foregrounds the historical context inhabited by the author, obliging us to consider the manner in which it impinged on his or her vision. We have pondered at length the case of William Blake, witness to the riots of June 1780 when, over the course of nearly a week, tens of thousands of protestors stormed through London. The Gordon Riots, so-called after their instigator, the anti-Catholic agitator Lord George Gordon, began with the destruction of the Catholic chapels of the Sardinian and Bavarian embassies. Rioters then besieged the residences of eminent Catholics. More than a hundred houses were destroyed; the mob to effective control of a number of roads and attacked London Bridge, the Sessions House at the Old Baily, and the Bank of England.
Blake was walking toward Newgate at around 6:30 p.m. on the evening of Tuesday June 6 when he encountered a group of rioters on their way to the nearby prison to which several of their number had been committed over the weekend. He watched as they proceeded, in a methodical manner, to demolish the building with pickaxes and sledgehammers. Within an hour, more than three hundred inmates were free, but the jail was torched before all were out of their cells, and the frantic screams of those inside were heard as they roasted to death. Fragments of red-hot metal shot into the darkening sky as huge pieces of masonry collapsed to the ground. Some protestors clambered onto the structure, perching precariously on window ledges that had yet to crumble. Others caroused in the street, as they broke open wine and liquor found in cellars used by the prison governor, while blacksmiths removed fetters from the ankles of newly freed prisoners.
As historians have long argued, the Gordon riots were motivated less by religious bigotry than by inequalities of income and social class, and Blake was aware of that. The protagonists were working people – small shopkeepers, pedlars, craftsmen, apprentices, discharged soldiers and sailors, waiters, and servants –whose actions were directed against the property of the wealthy (merchants, manufacturers, and other professionals), the most obvious example being Lord Mansfield’s house in Bloomsbury, torched along with his “rich wardrobe,” “superb” furniture, and library of over one thousand books. As one historian observes, the riots manifested “a groping desire to settle accounts with the rich, if only for a day, and to achieve some rough kind of social justice.” An additional motive was their opposition to the American war, now five years old (which explains the large numbers of sailors among them).
The only authoritative account we have of Blake’s involvement emphasizes his disinclination to be there. In the first major biography of then poet, Alexander Gilchrist wrote; “suddenly, he encountered the advancing wave of Blackguardism, and was forced (for from such a great surging mob there is no disentanglement) to go along in the very front rank, and witness the storm and burning of the fortress-like prison, and release of its three hundred inmates.” Every biography is a product of its historical moment, and Gilchrist’s is no exception. By the early 1860s, when he was writing, radical causes were in temporary retreat, Chartism having been crushed out of existence as decisively as the campaign for Parliamentary reform four decades earlier. Regardless of the evidence, Gilchrist could not allow it to be thought that Blake was party to the collapse of civil law in central London.
While it is most unlikely Blake would ever have fought alongside an anti-Catholic mob, it is conceivable he sympathized with at least some of their actions. The destruction of an ancient prison in the heart of London, horrific though it may have been, must have stirred the man who would write, “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion,” and declare fellow feeling for “the captive in chains & the poor in prison.” Blake was the same generation as many of the rioters, having completed his own apprenticeship less than a yearn before. He must have understood their grievances; if so, he was not alone. The army refused to fire on them, aware of the sailors among the crowds. Urged by John Wilkes to raise the posse comitatus, the Lord Mayor declined. Nor would the Court of Aldermen lift a finger to suppress them.
Whatever his feelings about what he witnessed, we can be sure Blake would never forget the sights and sounds of that evening, which brought him as close as he would ever get to a full-scale revolution – a subject that recurs throughout his writings. G.E. Bentley Jr. observes that
Images of ‘burning’, “fire”, “flames”, and “rage” in his poetry and in his picture of “Fire” are likely related to the scenes he saw during the Gordon riots, and from them one may construct a description of the riots: “all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire”, “a mighty multitude rage furious” “in flames of red burning wrath”, “Albions mountains run with blood, the cries of war & of tumult”, “Above the rest the howl was heard from Westminster launder &louder”, and “Around St James’s glow the fires”; from Westminster “Eastward &Southward &Northward are circled with flaming fires”, “In thunder smoke & sullen flames & howlings & fury & blood”, “in dungeons circled with ceaseless fire”; “All is confusion, all is tumult”. Blake’s visions of apocalypse come partly from personal experiences.
Bentley’s observation underlines the value of Forche’s ideas to the way in which we think about writers and their work. In recent decades, Blake has been appropriated by those who encounter him as a mythmaker or cryptographer, with the result that his art is rendered cerebral, the plaything of intellectuals. Poetry of witness reminds us that Blake’s art grew out of his life. It argues that, at the point at which the artist confronts extremity – whether imprisonment, torture, or warfare – his vision is altered irrevocably, turning utterance into testimony. Blake was not the same after his encounter with the Gordon Rioters. Perhaps he reveled in the spectacle of Newgate in flames and followed the mob over successive days, watching as one institution after another was reduced to ashes. It taught him what anarchy and destruction looked like. He knew the terror and excitement that came from watching the world burn down – and, as Bentley argues, those feelings pass into the mainstream of his work. . .
The poems in this book are acts of resistance. Some of our authors defy injustice to the extent of incurring the wrath of those willing to impose the ultimate sanction of death; some face risks, whether on the battlefield or in the forum of public debate, with the outcome not in an afterlife but in the here and now; all testify to the impress of extremity. Our reading of their work carries its own responsibility – not solely that of understanding the world from which it came, nor of comprehending how dearly such utterances are bought, but also that of being receptive to its burden.
That the poet bear witness to extremity is the requirement by which we have measured our judgments. By “extreme,” we refer to experiences that are the result of societal injustice, the depredations of the state, or sins of omission – specifically war, imprisonment, torture, and political oppression of various kinds. The fundamental argument of this book is simply and clearly articulated: each poet earns his or her place in “dialectical opposition to the extremity that has made witness necessary.” Such sensibilities are not the product only of recent times, but a perennial feature of human history –for the imagination has always been on trial. Poetry of Witness presents some of the finest works to emerge from that tradition, arguing they rank alongside the greatest in the language.