CAROLYN FORCHÉ (1950—)

As poet, translator and anthologist, Carolyn Forché has become the poet of her generation most strongly identified with political protest, social conscience, and, in her own phrase, “the poetry of witness.” As such, she can be seen in the tradition of poets like Robert Bly and W.H. Auden, who filled similar roles for their generations. Also like Bly and Auden before her, Forché has always maintained her reputation as a poet, not a purveyor of agitprop. Though reviews of her books appear in political magazines almost as often as literary magazines, even in those reviews her aesthetics receive as much attention as her beliefs.

 Carolyn Forché was born 28 April 1950 in Detroit, MI, but grew up in rural Michigan. Her father was a tool and die maker and her mother a journalist, but perhaps her most significant family influence was her paternal grandmother, whom she recalls disappearing at odd times, then returning weeks later with stories of staying in Mennonite or Native American or other communities. She has theorized that she inherited her own wanderlust from her grandmother, as she lived a peripatetic life from her late teens to her late thirties.

She graduated from Michigan State University in 1972, and took an MFA from Bowling Green University in 1975. Over the next ten years she taught at ten different colleges or institutions, but more significant to her development as a poet were her time as a journalist and human rights activist in El Salvador from 1978-80, and as a correspondent for National Public Radio in Beirut during 1983. Since 1994 she has taught at George Mason University.

Her first poetry collection, Gathering the Tribes (1975) won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award; her second, The Country Between Us (1981) was the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. The Angel of History was published in 1994, and won the Los Angeles Times Book Award; Blue Hour was published in 2004. She brought out translations of Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems, by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (with Munir Akash, 2003), Flowers from the Volcano (1983) and Sorrow (2000), by Nicaraguan/Salvadorian poet Claribel Alegria, and Selected Poetry by the French poet Robert Desnos's (with William Kulik, 1991). She edited the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993). She has also written and nonfiction, chiefly on political/humanitarian themes.  She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference (1976), National Endowment for the Arts (1977 and 1994), the Guggenheim Foundation (1978), and the Lannan Foundation (1992). Other literary awards have included the Alice Fay diCastagnola award from the Poetry Society of America (1981), and humanitarian awards have included the Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture Award (1998). 

Forché’s debut was auspicious but conventional. Gathering the Tribes was selected for the Yale Younger Poets series by Stanley Kunitz, and Kenneth Rexroth praised her as “beyond question the best woman poet to appear in the Yale Younger Poet series since Muriel Rukeyser.” Rexroth also called her, in perhaps his highest words of praise, “a genuine proletarian poet.” But Forche’s early work, powerful though it was, proletarian though it may have been, was in the general tradition of confessional poetry, first person lyrics focusing on family, sexuality, and remembered places.

 Some time after its publication, she began her travels to some of the more troubled parts of the world. She was most powerfully influenced by the year she spent in El Salvador, where she worked with to Amnesty International helping to find out what had happened to people who had disappeared. Her work brought her close to Archbishop Oscar Humberto Romero, a martyr to the cause of human rights, and into close contact with some terrifying people from the other side, including the colonel with a bag of grotesque souvenirs whom she would later write about.

The Country Between Us came from her El Salvador experience, and became the book that not only separated her from the pack in the small world of contemporary poetry, it also elevated her into celebrity in the world of political activism, always a two-edged sword (Forché has attributed the long delay between her first and second books to the viciousness of the attacks on The Country Between Us). Although only one section of the book contains poems directly describing her experience in El Salvador, that became the best-known part. Her prose poem describing the interview with the ghoulish colonel is probably her best-known work from that book, and remains her most quoted. “What you have heard is true,” the poem begins. “I was in his house." These plain statements announce Forché’s credo in this and her future books: to bear witness. The colonel, after an evening of family ordinariness, brings out “a sack used to bring groceries home.” The sack is full of human ears from citizens he has tortured. They look like dried fruit, and when he puts one of them in water, it comes alive. “Something for your poetry, no?” the colonel asks.

 The difference between the two books, Forché would tell interviewer Jonathan Cott, is that “the voice in my first book doesn’t know what it thinks, it doesn’t make any judgments. All it can do is perceive and describe…but I notice that the person in the second book makes an utterance.” The country that Forché finds and posits “between us” is El Salvador, a real yet metaphorical country that links her and her readers in a shared concern for the horrors of inhumanity. It is the gulf between people who share the same country: Archbishop Romero and the Colonel, Forché herself and the comfortable American society that not only tolerates but even encourages atrocities in the name of self-interest. Finally, it is the gulf between those who have experienced the unspeakable and those who have not: between Forché and her readers.  “The poetry of witness” is a poetry that simultaneously gathers the tribes and delineates the difference between them and the nomads, like Forché’s grandmother, who journey to the abyss and back. She expresses this sense of separateness in “Return” – the return to a country where “the iced drinks and paper umbrellas, clean/ toilets and Los Angeles palm trees moving/ like lean women” fill her with a fear that she had not felt in dangerous and atrocity-filled El Salvador. “Your problem,” she realizes, “is not your life as it is/ in America …It is/ not your right to feel powerless.  Better people than you were powerless.”

In the interim between her second and third books, Forché brought out translations, most notably of Claribel Alegria, whose work she had begun translating even before her first trip to El Salvador, and whom she met and befriended while in that country (her initial purpose in traveling to El Salvador was to meet Alegria). She translated a second book by Alegria in 2000. In 1991, she (with William Kulik) published a collection of translations of the French poet Robert Desnos, but her connection to Desnos went back to 1976, when she visited a memorial to French holocaust victims, and found poems scratched in the walls. She copied one that had especially moved her, but lost the name of the author. She would rediscover it years later, as the last poem by Desnos in the manuscript she was translating.

She also brought out the anthology Against Forgetting, to which she gave the subtitle Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, which has come to define her in the minds of many. Forché made it clear in her introduction that political passion or ideology is not enough to create poetry. She has written that "all poetry is both pure and engaged…Stress of purity creates a feeble estheticism that fails, in its beauty, to communicate. On the other hand, propagandistic hackwork has no independent life as poetry. What matters is not whether a poem is political, but the quality of its engagement." The anthology has had its critics, among them feminists who have bemoaned the paucity of female poets, but it continues to set a standard for contemporary political poetry.

It happens very often that the poetry which brought fame to the struggling poet will be remembered more, praised more, and in the long run evaluated higher than the poetry of the famous poet. This is to some extent true of Forché: The Country Between Us remains her best selling book, and will probably always be the source of her most anthologized poems, but The Angel of History marks growth and ambition as a poet. Forché’s witness, in this book, extends from her firsthand observation of war and destruction in El Salvador and Beirut to historical recreations of the atrocities of war in France, Germany and Japan. She moves away from the lyric “I” of The Country Between Us, and the accounts of her personal confrontation with the world of warfare and suffering, to create a poem at once longer and more fragmented, in the tradition of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, incorporating many voices, mostly the voices of the lost. In terms of scope and of poetic innovation, The Angel of History moves a long way from The Country Between Us, and its ambition was generally recognized and applauded by critics and readers alike.

The recording angel whom Forché summons is taken from an essay by Walter Benjamin, who describes the angel of history with a face "turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet." That wreckage is counted in images as horrific as any in modern poetry, from the dead girl who "was thought to be with child/ Until it was discovered that her belly had already been cut open/ And a man's head placed where the child would have been" to the red flower which the speaker casually dislikes because its particular shade reminds her "of a woman’s brain crushed under a roof."

The angel speaks through many voices, often left deliberately ambiguous and difficult to identify. Voices heard in the book include Forché’s Czech immigrant grandmother, Anna; a suicidal patient in a Paris hospital who has survived the Nazis only to conclude that God is a psychopath; the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, whose last poems were found on his corpse in a mass grave of concentration camp prisoners; a Hiroshima survivor, now a tour guide at the Garden Shukkei-en, in a section of the poem that is better able to exist separately, and so is most often anthologized. The woman, in summing up her thoughts near the end of the poem, tells a tourist/listener from America that “We have not, all these years, felt what you call happiness/ But at times, with good fortune, we experience something close.”

Forché’s fourth book, Blue Hour, found her moving away from both lyric “I” and recording angel, though traces of both personae still appear. The dramatic fragmentation of polyphonic voices was largely replaced by a different kind of fragmentation, that associated with poets like John Ashbery and especially Jorie Graham (since Forché eschews Ashbery’s tongue in cheek), in which the poet appears to want to engage the world one on one, and examine personal issues like motherhood and family history, but knows that perhaps too many poems have been written on those themes already, and that “but this is me writing it” may not be enough to set it apart. Interestingly, the negative criticism of Blue Hour comes from those who see a different aspect of  “but this is me writing it” – the dependence on flat statement, on judgmentalism, the eschewing of poetic devices like metaphor and tension of language within a line.

The book’s title is a literal translation of a French phrase that refers to the time of night when darkness gradually turns into dawn, and that functions as a governing metaphor for the book—that time when the most dramatic change of all, that of dark into light, is occurring, but the observer can never quite put her finger on how it’s happening, or the degree of change; the time between sleep and waking, when dreams and thought interact, and afterwards one can never say for certain which was which. The centerpiece of the book is “On Earth,” a 46-page abecedarian, a form which allows Forché to work with an organizing principle which is both demanding and random. In addition to the literary antecedents this calls to mind, Forché is working very much in the tradition of the late twentieth century minimalist composers, particularly Terry Riley, whose “In C” applies the same structural principals of repetition and overlapping.

Forché’s concern for finding a voice with which to bear witness has extended beyond poetry, and resulted in her editing a book called Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, featuring essays by such authors as Philip Lopate, William Least-Heat Moon, Annie Dillard, Honor Moore and Diane Ackerman.

 

Further Reading. Selected Primary Sources: Forché, Carolyn, Gathering the Tribes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976); ---, The Country Between Us (New York: Harper Perennial, 1981); ---, ”El Salvador: An Aide Memoire” (American Poetry Review 10.4 [July-August 1981]: 3-8; Alegria, Claribel, transl. by ---, Flowers From The Volcano (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982); Desnos, Robert, transl. by --- and William Kulik, The Selected Poems Of Robert Desnos (New York: The Ecco Press, 1991); ---, ed., Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993); ---, The Angel of History (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995); Alegria, Claribel, transl. by ---, Sorrow (Willimantic CT, Curbstone Press, 1999); ---, Blue Hour (New York: HarperCollins, 2003). Secondary Sources: Cott, Jonathan, interview (Rolling Stone [April 14, 1983]: 81, 83-87, 110-111); Stone, Carole, “Elegy as Political Expression in Women's Poetry: Akhmatova, Levertov, Forche” (College Literature 19.1 [February 1991]: 84-91; O'Rourke, Meghan, “She's So Heavy” (The Nation 276.22 [June 9, 2003]: 33-36)