“While the solitude and tranquility thought to be the condition of literary production were absent for many twentieth- and twenty-first century poets, even in the aftermath of their survival, writers have survived and written despite all that has happened, and against all odds. They have created exemplary literary art with language that has also passed through catastrophe.” – Carolyn Forché
Any poem can be an experience and doesn’t need to be labeled as ‘witness’ in order to accomplish the act. Reading in itself is an experience, and when what’s being read is written well, it alters, leaves marks, scars, memories. Inept writing does the same. It’s hard to forget an epically bad poem. In a way, I agree with Forché when she says that the poem becomes the experience, instead of achieving a sort of third hand representation. But, I temper the agreement with two flies: as stated, any poem can be an experience and the witness poem is, in fact, a delayed retelling of an experience. Eye witnesses, no matter how charming, or witty, or intelligent, are merely people. Poems of witness are creations, no matter how carefully constructed, produced by poets… who happen to be people. We cannot separate ourselves so fully from our essence, our humanness, as to completely remove our own warped glass from between us and what we see… then what we show to others through our telling. Even straight up historical facts are marred by the winners of wars and dependent on the interests of the reporter.
In Calling Him Back from Layoff, Bob Hicok touches on a theme close to my heart. I’m the daughter of a laborer, a sister to one, and my husband works with his hands in the cold daily. So, it’s safe to say that I have a soft spot for the blue collar working man and have ‘witnessed’ a few layoffs. I’ve also seen the call back and appreciate the time, craft, energy, and careful thought that Hicok poured into his poem. As far as the poem becoming the experience of the speaker (as well as the man called) I can’t agree. While it’s a wonderful representation, especially with the wondering thoughts of the speaker at the close:
‘if I give a job to one stomach other
forks are naked and if tonight a steak
sizzles in his kitchen do the seven
other people staring at their phones
and the insights into his discomfort:
‘When he began to cry I tried
with the shape of my silence to say
I understood but each confession
of fear and poverty was more awkward
than what you learn in the shower.’
I’m not going to say that I have just ‘witnessed’ or experience yet another call back. It didn’t happen, I read a poem. I did not ease drop on a phone call, nor did I magically become capable of reading the speakers mind.
I will say, though, that I really enjoyed the poem, and that I think that the representation is strong enough, concrete enough to create the illusion of having witnessed what’s happening. I experienced the poem, the art, and saw though Hicok’s eyes. He shared with us and that’s plenty for me.
Sarah Ockershausen Delp
Forche, Carolyn. “Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art.” 2 May 2011. Poetry Foundation.org. Web. Jan 2017. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/detail/69680>.
Hicok, Bob. “Calling Him Back from Layoff.” 2004. Poetryfoundation.org. Web. Jan 2017. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/54793>.