?’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
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 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
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
"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
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
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
collecting their work, and soon found myself a repository of what began to be called ‘the
poetry of witness.’"
Forch?’s most recent book, 1994’s The Angel of History works with that sense
of witness, within the ruins of twentieth century culture, and its misplaced optimism
about perfectibility. It moves through fragmentary elocutions to elegiac wholeness. Toward
the end, in the Book Codes poems, she writes of time, its passing, its evolution,
and its witness:
an afternoon swallowing down whole years its every hour
troops marching by in the snow until they are transparent
from the woods through tall firs a wood with no apparent end
cathedrals at the tip of our tongues with countries not yet seen
whoever can cry should come here
Powerful work by a supremely talented writer who has done nothing but deliver on the
promise Kunitz saw. Please welcome Carolyn Forch?.
"Carolyn Forche: The Poetry
by Steven Ratiner
All journeys are wise – when viewed with enough time and distance. Looking back on
life’s passages, the wrong turns and chance meetings, even dead-end streets can assume a
place in a clear and purposeful progression. It’s in the day-to-day navigation that an
individual’s inner compass and determination are tested. And for an artist, the sum of
those daily choices, both mundane and monumental, leave an indelible mark on the character
of the individual and the content of the creation.
Entering the middle passage of her life, poet Carolyn Forche has received more acclaim
and notoriety, witnessed more instances of cold brutality and generosity of spirit than
one might expect in several lifetimes. This past month saw the publication of "The
Angel of History," the first new collection of her work in over 13 years. I met with
the poet at her Maryland home. The two-hour interview I’d arranged somehow expanded into
an eight-hour marathon conversation. And the lasting impression I came away with concerns
the tangled, dangerous, and utterly guileless path she has traveled in her life. Hers has
been a triumph of the honest choice over the expedient, the strength of personal
commitment over the tidal sway of public opinion. Along the way, and very likely because
of it, she has created a collection of verse that addresses the terror and inhumanity that
have become standard elements in the 20th-century political landscape – and yet affirms as
well the even greater reservoir of the human spirit.
Her literary career had the most auspicious of beginnings; her first book,
"Gathering the Tribes," won the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1976. A Guggenheim
Fellowship followed shortly after. Trying to work her way through writer’s block, she
began to translate the poetry of Claribel Alegria, a Salvadoran poet living in Spain. She
was invited to spend the summer in Deya, Majorca, at Alegrs home. In 1977, Forche was a
young poet making her first trip away from the United States.
Her friend, the writer Terrence Des Pres, insisted she make a little pilgrimage during
her brief stopover in France. "Terrence said, `when you get to Paris, go to Notre
Dame … and walk across the quay and look for a black iron gate and a white
stairwell."’ He would not tell her beforehand what she’d find. Dragging her huge
suitcase down the shadowy steps, she found herself in "the memorial to the 200,000
people who were deported from France during the shoah. There were white rooms with stone
walls, poetry carved into the walls, different poets who had been in the camps. And there
was a tunnel with 200,000 tiny beads of light embedded in its walls, one for each of the
lives…. And you could hear the river rushing past the windows. I stayed there for a long
Forche copied down some of the poems in her journal, but later in Spain, the notebook
was accidentally left out in the rain. The lines of poetry remained but the author’s name
was washed away. A decade of searching never turned up the poet’s identity.
Forche spent three months working with Alegria, dazzled by the international coterie of
artists and writers who would congregate daily at her house. The experience reinforced in
her the desire to do something, to make a difference with her work.
After the summer, she returned to California, taught creative writing at San Diego
State College, and felt largely uninspired. "One day I was home alone and I heard a
truck pull up in the driveway…. It had Salvadoran license plates and was covered with
dust." A man emerged accompanied by two little girls. With some trepidation, she
ascertained that this was Leonel Gomez Vides, the "crazy nephew" of Claribel
Alegria. "He carried a roll of white paper with him and a fistful of pencils…. He
walked into my house like he owned the place and asked me to clear off my dining-room
table … and announced `we have work to do.’ He put his books and papers down … and
didn’t leave my house for three days and three nights."
He became her self-appointed teacher, conducting a crash course in Central American
history from the Spanish conquest to the present. At first Forche was fascinated by his
intensity and thought of his stories as background for her translations. But his final
challenge was a daunting one: "He said, `Claribel tells me you’ve won a Guggenheim
Fellowship. Congratulations!’ Then he asked me if I’d understood the Vietnam War when it
was going on? …`Would you like to see one from the beginning? … My country is going to
be at war in three to five years. And your country is going to be involved … and I want
to invite a poet to come down there now so that when all of this happens, this person can
inform people here about what’s going on."’
Forche explained to him that poets lack a compelling credibility in the United States
and suggested that it might be more useful to invite a journalist instead. But Leonel
insisted that "he needed a peculiar kind of sensitivity" for this task. In the
end, she believed that this man was either exaggerating or just plain wrong in his vision
of American entanglement in another third-world conflict. But she allowed curiosity to win
out over caution and accepted his invitation. Paris or Rome might have been the more
romantic choice for a poet on a Guggenheim fellowship seeking the illusive muse. Though
her friends were unanimously opposed to the idea, Forche journeyed, not east toward to the
"city of lights," but south to San Salvador in 1978.
In the end, her mentor was not wrong in the details of his predictions, only in the
timing. By the autumn of 1979, the first of several coups had toppled the government, a
civil war was erupting, and Forche found herself in the very eye of the storm.
For a year she met with people from all around El Salvador, worked for Archbishop Oscar
Romero’s church group, documented horrifying cases of human rights abuses, and began to
take her first tentative steps back toward poetry. By 1980, when the fighting was becoming
too dangerous, Archbishop Romero requested that Ms. Forche return home. "`Talk to the
American people,’ he said. `Tell them what is happening to us. Convince them to stop the
military aid.’ He had this whole program of things he wanted me to do." He sat with
his white cassock in the little kitchen of the nuns’ Divine Providence Hospital, 20 feet
from the chapel where, one week later, he would be assassinated.
Back in the United States, the young poet struggled to justify Romero’s faith in her.
She wrote articles and traveled across the country, reading her poetry and talking about
the conflict in Central America. Her poems both startled and galvanized audiences with
their depiction of the pervasive brutality being employed in El Salvador against their own
Literary publishers turned away from Forchs new book, citing the charged political
nature of the poetry – even though the El Salvador poems comprised only an eight-poem
section. Finally, with some assistance from writer Margaret Atwood, "The Country
Between Us" was published and became an almost immediate success. The El Salvador
conflict had suddenly been thrust into the American consciousness by the killing of four
American church women, and Forchs book became a part of the national debate on Central
The brand "political poet" was used to both damn and lionize her work. She
found herself mired in what she now sees is "the cyclic debate peculiar to the United
States concerning the relationship between poetry and politics …. And I felt that the
debate wasn’t a useful one, that the grounds were reductive and simplistic and unhelpful
to anyone who wanted to think about the responsibility of citizens, much less writers….
There was no notion that language might be inherently political or perhaps ideologically
charged whatever the subject matter and even when the person isn’t aware of [it]."
A few writers went so far as to suggest that Forche fabricated her entire El Salvador
experience. (The mention of this brings an ironic smile to her husband’s face;
photojournalist Harry Mattison met his future wife in El Salvador while covering the war
for Time magazine.) Yet others defended her work, arguing that no one would have thought
anything amiss had a man ventured into this war zone and authored these poems. The sadness
for Forche was that all this sound and fury focused attention on the personality of the
writer, obscuring the poems themselves.
Still, "The Country Between Us" was awarded the prestigious Lamont Poetry
Prize, and the poet found herself reading and teaching all around the country. Most
writers would thrive on the prospect of a national readership; it had the opposite effect
on Forche. Between the hectic travel schedule, the absence of solitude, and anguish over
the deaths of Salvadoran friends, she felt that something of herself was being obliterated
in the process. She was learning that this was the price of her desire to "do"
something. In the following years, she taught, traveled, reported for National Public
Radio from war-torn Beirut and South Africa, and worked for Amnesty International. But the
inner voice that had brought her the poetry was gone.
Or, if not "gone," altered. "At this time," she remembers, "I
was writing something that was unrecognizable to me…. The work on the page was rather
fragmented and unusual looking. And so I thought these must constitute notes toward poems.
Because I was still laboring under the assumption … that a poem was a first-person lyric
narrative free-verse construct. That it had a voice which was governed by an authoritative
subjectivity that could experience the world and express that experience with all its
truth-claims…. And what I was doing was not that at all…. I was very frustrated, and I
put it all in boxes and didn’t know what to do. And seven years passed."
About to have her first baby, Forche and her husband moved to Paris. To ease the
physical discomfort and the lonely hours, she embarked on a new project: "There was a
book in the cupboard of French poetry. I went and got a very large French-English
dictionary … because I decided that if I was going to have a baby in France, I should
learn some French! And I had this romantic notion that I was going to learn French by
translating poetry…. I had almost worked my way through the French text. And what was on
the last page? The lines I had copied from the Holocaust memorial! I had found him! It was
the poet Robert Desnos who died in the concentration camps."
The discovery not only led her to eventually publish a translation of Desnos’s work,
but also inspired an even larger undertaking. "I was having difficulty writing at
all, much less writing politically or nonpolitically…. I felt there was something broken
within me, and that brokenness manifested itself in the language on the page. And I began
to read the works of other poets who had endured warfare or … had been imprisoned or
forced into exile. I was interested in the impress of extremity on the poetic
imagination…. And if a work was not explicitly about war, would you be able to tell that
the poet had been through this?"
She began obsessively reading and collecting contemporary poetry from around the world.
In 1992, after a decade of gathering poems, she published "Against Forgetting,"
a giant compendium of what she calls "the poetry of witness." Forche sees this
anthology as "a symphony of utterance, a living memorial to those who had died and
those who survived the horrors of the 20th century." And indeed, her reading of this
literature convinced her that "if a poet is a survivor of the camps during the shoah,
for example, and the poet chooses to write about snow falling, one can discern the camps
in the snow falling…." Perhaps without realizing it, she had also opened the next
path on her own journey.
In 1987, Forche moved back to the United States. While her husband had to be away, she
and her young son, Sean, took a small apartment in Provincetown, Mass. A friend, poet
Daniel Simko, lived nearby. "He was upset that I wasn’t writing … and he said,
`I’ll take Sean for two hours every afternoon…. I’ll take him out in the carriage, I’ll
take him to the beach…. but you have to promise to write poetry while I’m
gone…."’ And knowing she might succumb to the impulse to clean or shop during these
respites, he added "And I want to see the pages when I get back here with him."
The gift of time was precisely what was needed. The same cryptic multivoiced lines
began appearing in her mind, but now she had the means to receive them, to pursue their
leads, to shape them on the page. "And I realized that now it was emerging as
something intact in and of itself. And yes, there were absences in it and disruptions in
it, and there was not this discernible first-person voice sustaining itself and gathering
momentum…. No, this was something ongoing and building, interrupting itself and shifting
What emerged as "The Angel of History" is a mosaic of voices in four long
poem-sequences; it creates the feel of an overarching memory in which the people and
events of our century hover. So transparent and unaffected is the writing, we are drawn
into offering our own memories, our personal voices into the gathering presence.
"There’s a line in [`Angel'] that says: `The earth is wrapped in weather, and the
weather in risen voices.’ And all I could feel when I was writing was that I was somehow
pulling at these pieces, these fragments, these swatches of human language. Some of the
work obviously issues from my own circumstances, but I don’t know where the others come
April 7 is Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, and for two minutes each year the
entire country comes to a standstill. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin commented that
"the Holocaust is part of all our personal biographies, even if we were not
there." Creating a more expansive stillness, Carolyn Forchs book accomplishes much
the same purpose. Its web of voices lifts us from the benumbed condition in which we
usually consume the daily news and compels us to experience other lives, other struggles,
as if they were part of our own memories. The gift of Ms. Forchs "Angel" is that
we emerge from this text feeling not less but more human, more aware of the motion of our
lives and – though I say it with some sadness — a bit wiser for the journey.
? Copyright 2001 The Christian Science Monitor. Online