Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Who is a witness?

A long discussion thread on a poetry list serv I belong to, inspired by C.D. Wright's book of poems about men incarcerated in Louisiana, One Big Self, about whether poets can be "witness" to conditions they themselves haven't experienced. I just eavesdropped for awhile. But was finally moved to write something this morning. Here it is:

As the poet E. Ethelbert Miller likes to point out, James Baldwin spoke of the witness as being altogether different from the observer, as the witness is called upon to testify. We are all witnesses to our country’s outrageous prison-industrial complex, which has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Let me say that again: The US has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. The people we lock up – mostly poor men of color – are voiceless and considered altogether expendable.

I have also not yet read CD Wright’s book, and I’m with those who have not been moved by previous work I’ve read. But I am in favor of any poet or artist, indeed any citizen, drawing attention to the human impact of our policy decision to lock up so many of our brothers and sisters. The stronger the poems as art, of course, the more effective they will be. But how can we question a poet’s right to write about our inhumanity as a society? Isn’t this, in fact, our responsibility?

Sarah - Thanks for this thoughtful post. I'm with you about the idea of the writer as witness. There is a kind of necessary humility though, in writing about situations one has not lived through firsthand. I say this having tried to write about torture for the last year or more. I think writers should and can try to give voice to these situations. But for me, as I said, there is just a kind of humility required. We, as poets, can "see" realities we have not lived through. And because of that "seeing" can (and should) write about them. You do this well in some of your poems. I hope to. Thanks for a thoughtful posting. J. Ross
Thank you, Joe, for your comment. I agree absolutely that we have to approach these topics with humility - that's an excellent word. Always I think we have to keep trying - to understand, to imagine the experience of another, to get some aspect of that trying onto paper. I'm grateful that you think I have had some success in the past -- that's gratifying, coming from such a thoughtful poet as yourself. Onward!
Sarah -

Thanks. One more thought on this-- J. K. Rowling, an interesting person for sure, said in her commencement address at Harvard, that imagination, which she described as the key to empathy, the ability to enter the experience of another, is always her goal. She wrote that she realized that possibility, in an internship at Amnesty Int'l when she was asked to pick up a torture survivor at the airport. She had no idea how to think of his experience but knew that imagination was part of the key.

Just another thought. JR
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