Will you write about Duggan? the man wants to know.
Why don’t you? you ask.
Me? he asks, looking slightly irritated.
(Claudia Rankine, Citizen).
When Tim Dooley approached me about writing on the subject of poetry as witness, he was concerned the idea might sound ‘crass’. I understood his reticence; the term is overgrown with meanings, no longer overwhelmingly positive. It might help to get things rolling by focusing initially on the last thirty years and the anglophone poet with whom the term is most closely associated, Carolyn Forché, (Celan would be the obvious choice outside this language). Her 1981 book, The Country Between Us, with its powerful poems about the civil war in El Salvador, where she worked as a human rights advocate, marked her starting point as a self-described ‘poet of witness’. Subsequently Forché became influential on both sides of the Atlantic, not just for the acclaimed poetry she continued to write but through her two anthologies: 1993’s remarkable Against Forgetting; then, perhaps less successfully, in collaboration with Duncan Wu, The Poetry of Witness: The English Tradition, 1500–2001. Published by Norton in 2014, the latter is described in their blurb as:
the first anthology to reveal a tradition that runs through English-language poetry … The three hundred poems collected here were composed at an extreme of human endurance – while their authors awaited execution, endured imprisonment, fought on the battlefield, or labored on the brink of breakdown or death.
It’s hard to see inclusions such as Marvell’s ‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’ fitting into those categories, never mind representing
an unrevealed tradition. Questions were also arising by now about the voyeuristic dimensions to this concept of witness and the authority it bestowed on the poet’s presence – as well as about Forché’s careful distancing of herself from being thought of as a political poet as opposed to one who is ‘politically engaged’.
Times change. Cathy Park Hong’s essay ‘Against Witness’ in Poetry magazine this year asked: ‘Is it enough that a poem ‘remembers’ when we are now entrenched in an era of total [digital] recall?’. The context for this remark is Hong’s discussion of work by ‘secondary witness’ Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, quoted as saying, ‘I have constructed the work as invisibility, because I regard the non-visual as representing a lack of power. To see is to have power’. Salcedo’s comments speak to both issues of power and the tyranny of the eye in our lives now, surrounded by screens – a word invoking both what is and isn’t seen. A benign example of the power of primary witnessing might be the heartfelt response to the picture of the drowned body of two-year-old Aylan Kurdi. But within days Gucci had used it as the basis for a fashion shot in Le Monde. Photographs of dead children have been used for propaganda purposes from very soon after the medium was invented. A few weeks later, Charlie Hebdo was producing cartoons about Aylan Kurdi’s death – sporting McDonald’s logos and with jokes about children’s meal deal bargains and Christians being able to walk on water.
Sooner or later in writing about the word ‘witness’, its etymological connection to ‘martyr’ will suggest itself. A connection made closer nowadays by the internet’s ability to deliver footage of acts of martyrdom instantly to witnesses in the suburban bedroom as easily as to battlefield headquarters. ‘Martyr’ is so weaponized a word that employing it in online discussions frequently accelerates the application of Godwin’s law (that as a discussion grows longer, the probability increases of a comparison involving the Holocaust being invoked, or worse, denied). Related controversies you’ll be likely to hear alluded to include the Nazi symbolism of the black triangle1, followed by the phrase ‘competitive victimhood’. That always reminds me of a different kind of triangle, Karpman’s: a model of compulsive behaviour between people in conflict typified as persecutor, rescuer or victim, a psycho-emotional Wankel engine that can sustain groups with self- justifying energy for generations. Those engaged in sustained social action need to be alert to whatever psychological payoff they might be getting in order to be truly disciplined and effective. For my part, that is coming to terms with a ghost: not exorcizing it, but accommodating it, like the Babadook.
When I came to Leeds in 1974, my first job was as a labourer in the Hepworth cloth warehouse. Their head of security was Ken Kitching, who had walked into this cushy job recently after a short spell in open prison as a result of his involvement in a brutal campaign of persecution leading to the death of David Oluwale, a homeless Nigerian Empire migrant. Oluwale’s fate haunted me and was one of the reasons I started to work with the homeless after finishing my literature and art degree. I maintain an involvement with the David Oluwale Memorial Association (DOMA), which continues to campaign locally in the same way that the Manuel Bravo Project (named after another tragic case) offers legal advice to asylum seekers. I’ve written about Manuel Bravo in a poem, ‘Dependant’, which appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Poetry London and which will appear in my next book, The Blind Roadmaker.
A DOMA Symposium held this April 2015 took place against the background of furore caused by Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriation of Michael Brown’s autopsy report for a piece of conceptual writing the previous month. DOMA has always had a lot of involvement from writers and poets. Caryl Phillips, its founding patron is still involved and his role as a professor at Yale, means DOMA has been alert to American developments; the poet Sai MuRai, a board member, shared a platform with Patrisse Cullors, co- founder of Black Lives Matter, six weeks before Goldsmith’s reading. This controversy felt close to home because conceptual writing is more prominently represented near us in Yorkshire than almost anywhere else in these islands, with Simon Morris’s ‘Information as material (iam)’ in York and with Shandy Hall (where both Goldsmith himself and Craig Dworkin have held residencies) as one of its leading international centres. Goldsmith and Dworkin had previously been the subject of controversy when their anthology Against Expression included excerpts from M NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, a work exploring legacies of the late eighteeenth century British court case where a hundred and fifty slaves were thrown overboard so the slave ship’s captain could collect the insurance money. Zong! is a constraint-based piece only using words found in the original one-page legal document. Dworkin and Goldsmith wrote of Zong!:
the ethical inadequacies of that legal document . . . do not prevent their détournement in the service of experimental writing.
This prompted an attack from Cathy Park Hong, commenting in another of her essays, ‘Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde’:
God forbid that maudlin and heavy-handed subjects like slavery and mass slaughter overwhelm the form! Thankfully, such ‘ethical inadequacies’ have been disciplined enough to be ‘in the service’ of experimental writing’.
Evie Shockley has written an essay for Jacket exploring the affinities between M NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! and conceptual writing, which are complex, but the point I want to make here is that this essay is not an exercise in pillorying the avant-garde, not least because black, Asian and other ethnic minority experimental writers employ its techniques as successfully as their more traditional counterparts. The more important issue is to do with writers’ attitudes to their subjects and audiences.
The Western bourgeoisie has long known its rôle in art is to be abused by the avant-garde; however, groups outside this tradition or class don’t easily see why they or their culture should be insulted or patronized by relatively privileged people. It very often seems to members of such groups to be merely a continuance of abusive patterns rooted deep in society. Goldsmith doesn’t seem to have appreciated this when planning his intervention. In a recent extremely sympathetic New Yorker interview, he said ‘I’m an avant-gardist. I want to cause trouble, but I don’t want to cause too much trouble. I want it to be playful’. This vision of the avant-garde is relevant because contemporary poetry here and in the USA mainly survives at a professional level in academia, a structurally neotenic environment where avant-garde varieties have enjoyed the highest prestige since the 1990s. Sandeep Parmar wrote recently in a Wolf magazine editorial responding to Cathy Park Hong’s ‘Delusions’ essay, ‘Hong’s argument that poets who address race or racial politics are excluded from intellectual coteries of avant-garde or ‘innovative’ poets is hard to dispute – partly on the basis that you can’t be both ‘post-racial’ (or ‘post-identity’) and dissolve the poetic subject if you’re always read as a poet of colour’. She went on to say that in her experience of the two countries you are more easily pigeonholed as an ‘ethnic’ writer in the UK than the USA. When you are so pigeonholed, like the Northern Irish writers during the most recent active phase of the Troubles, you will either be accused of cashing in on or ignoring the predicament of your community, whether or not you feel a part of any community.
The week after the DOMA symposium, I attended the John Riley appreciation day at Leeds University, which I was also involved in planning. This was another kind of witnessing – for a poet who suffered silencing through a variety of extraordinarily violent factors, beaten to death here in his native city in 1978 and then having his stock of books blown up with the Carcanet offices when the IRA bombed Manchester. Peter Riley spoke at the event and his collection Due North couldn’t be more timely, a book he describes as, among other things, ‘concerned with human movement northwards or out in the quest for work’. Peter Riley has recently suggested it might be interesting to choose a town in England and study all the poetry produced there of whatever stripe, and here in Leeds 7, while John Riley’s poems are sophisticated developments of certain early Cambridge school concerns, I have also enjoyed the work of Chapeltown-based Leeds Young Authors. The multi-award-winning film of their USA tour, We Are Poets, represents in its very title a defiant claim to a status that is only reluctantly accorded to poets whose work has to be witnessed to be fully appreciated. I have also read on DOMA platforms with them and listened to them discuss their work, where they have made clear the importance to them of social and political engagement on behalf of vulnerable groups, and the responsibility they feel for representing some of those groups. This community-based environment is very different to that of the academy.
‘You make poetry for people. I make poetry of people’, Vanessa Place tweeted in the course of another row about conceptual writers and their attitudes to the experience of people of colour. Twitter is inevitably a forum for these exchanges, favoured by conceptualists and their opponents. Some of these, outraged at Place’s circulation of racist images and text from Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With The Wind’ without comment or condemnation, mounted a successful campaign against Place’s participation in an AWP committee. Subsequently, Ron Silliman entered the fray, declared ‘Je suis Vanessa’ and asked rhetorically: ‘Are the signers of the petition to the AWP really that different from the police officer who fired at Michael Brown?’ This was an extraordinarily tactless remark while the death-toll of black Americans at the hands of police continued to mount (Claudia Rankine leaves blank pages in Citizen to contain the lengthening bead-roll).
At bottom, are these controversies really centred on the morality of differing poetic techniques? It is perfectly possible, and I think on balance likely, that Goldsmith and Place feel that their work has
highlighted racism and police violence in American society. Over here, in a different way, large claims have been made for the political impact of Cambridge poetry, the most prominent development in the field here since the 1990s, not least in US eyes. Robert Archambeau, sympathetic to the Cambridge school on the whole, challenges these claims in his book of essays, The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World:
NH Reeve and Richard Kerridge’s claim for work of this kind is grandiose, but far from atypical: for them, Cambridge poetry ‘collide[s] with the powerful instrumental discourses of the culture’ with the effect of ‘smashing them into pieces’…
Archambeau asks, how this collision can take place when such poetry remains sequestered from society at large in its academic fastnesses.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate the traditional influence of Cambridge and Oxford. JH Prynne has been one of two figures dominating academic poetry in England for decades, the other since his return from the USA being Geoffrey Hill, especially during his recent tenure as Oxford Professor of Poetry, when he has issued a series of ex cathedra judgements on contemporary literature and politics during the course of his lectures. Rivalrous with Prynne in many ways, Hill has often stated he believes his own brand of difficult poetry is more democratic than accessible varieties, but is it not likely that any way of writing poetry, accessible or arcane, can be used to carry widely different political ideas? Archambeau describes even Andrew Duncan’s writing on ‘form as politics’ as ‘a mirage’.
Perhaps a poet interested in social and political engagement should adopt a manner strategically consonant with her times and the political topography she finds herself working within, developing new forms or blends when existing ones prove inadequate to our predicament. Riley’s comments on his approach in Due North seem to me an exemplary demonstration of balancing these requirements: ‘The textual mode is literal and lyrical, to posit the value of these two forces in sustaining hope’. Similarly, at the opening of Citizen we read: ‘When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices’, which alludes to the usual devices of poetry as well as those of technology, in a book which goes on to be brilliantly innovative, although Andrea Brady (in a piece we’ll come to later) argues that Citizen is less avant-garde in its techniques than Rankine’s previous books.
I’m fortunate in having important new work from Rankine and Riley before me as I start an extended writing project with asylum seekers suffering from PTSD and their therapists, those professional witnesses vulnerable to traumatic countertransference and a ‘witness guilt’ not unlike survivor guilt; ‘No one bears witness for the witness’ as Celan writes in ‘Aschenglorie’. Herman writes in her Trauma and Recovery: ‘Witnesses as well as victims are subject to the dialectic of trauma’. A different kind of witness research inspired me when I started working with homeless people in the early Nineties with the publication of studies on ‘Verbal overshadowing’. This concept developed by Jonathan Schooler and Tonya Engster-Schooler from studying crime-scene witnesses and describes the negative effect of linguistic recording on visual recognition in these circumstances: witnesses who take notes or make verbal descriptions being less able to recognize suspects in an identity parade. A problem to police, this was exactly the kind of linguistic interference we were looking for: our trauma victims often replaying their terrible experiences constantly in their mind’s eye.
Jean Rhys said, ‘When you’ve written it down it doesn’t hurt anymore’ and, while it’s not quite as simple as that, it isn’t too far from what seems to be going on. The rendition of experience into language won’t make wounds disappear, but helps with the formation of emotional scar tissue to prevent further harm and make it possible to investigate the extent and nature of previous damage. In terms of the body politic, it acts like the truth and reconciliation commissions that have proved helpful in various parts of the world since they were first used in Argentina in 1983, the year Forché’s The Country Between Us was published in the UK.
I mentioned earlier about universities providing a refuge for poets now. A while ago, I was enjoying it in a local one where I worked with a Muslim student on her project about Islamophobia. She was defensive about her faith’s claim on secular influence when that came up, as inevitably it did. However, she was amazed and genuinely interested when I quoted Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ to the effect that religion and politics are the same thing. She was proud of her own culture’s tradition of poetry and, among other things, we’d talked about the use of rhyme in the Qur’an, although poets get a hard time there:
Only those who are lost in error follow the poets. Do you not see how they rove aimlessly in every valley; how they never follow their words with actions…
(26.224-6, version MAS Abdel Haleem)
We were due to meet again the following term but she never came back after the summer holidays, during which time her brother became one of those we now know as the 7/7 bombers.
Many people I meet now know through educational institutions young people who have gone or attempted to go to the Middle East to join in the conflicts there as well as here. If the present stereotype of a Muslim is a person subject to violent fanaticism, at one time it was that of a passive fatalist. Herman records how survivors of Nazi extermination camps described cases of absolute collapse in the will to live, a ‘uniformly fatal condition’ they called ‘musulman’.
People and times change as must poetry and it would be crass to suggest that any kind of poetry now has anything useful to say about such horror, still less that if poets follow their words with actions that will necessarily be a good thing, (Auden’s phrase in ‘Spain’ about ‘poets exploding like bombs’ has haunted me while writing this, as has the fate of committed anti- racist Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which certainly played a part locally in radicalizing some elements in the community). I don’t have any grand conception of poets’ possible social action as I don’t feel grand conceptions of poetry now stand up to very much examination. My idea of the role is cooperative and facilitative rather than heroic, but it is not passive.
What is passive in poetry here is its attitude to the power abuses we witness: even ones as stark as those based on colour and perceived gender. If I have talked a lot about the USA, it is because so little of relevance is talked about here. The Andrea Brady piece I cited earlier from the Conversation website makes these further observations:
Many American poets of colour have pointed out that these scandals [Goldsmith, Place etc] are part of a structure of white privilege. Literary journals, anthologies, presses and syllabi are sites of segregation. This is even more true in the UK than it is in the US. Yet British poets, let alone the British press, seem reluctant to discuss it.
If you think such issues important as well as the larger matters lying behind them, whatever you choose to do, however you choose to witness, surely we must extend this discussion, and take our responses beyond discussion. If you don’t, I can only quote Rankine’s question from my epigraph: Why don’t you?