Poetry of Witness – Against Forgetting

‘Poetry is not a luxury’.

Audre Lorde

Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival

Poetry of Witness – Against Forgetting

Date and Time: Wednesday 21 October, 2020, 6-7pm

Platform: Hosted by Poetry Ireland on Poetry Ireland YouTube channel.

Category: Poetry Readings and Panel Discussion

Tickets: Open to the public 

Booking: Click Here

Moderator: Jane O’Hanlon, Poetry Ireland

Artists and Guest Speakers: Catherine Ann Cullen, poet in residence, Poetry Ireland; Áine Ní Ghlinn, Laureate na nÓg; Maria McManus, poet; Lia Mills, poet; Geoff Finan, poet; Siorcha Fox, poet.


This event is a reflection on ‘poetry of witness’, a phrase coined by celebrated poet Carolyn Forché who describes her work as politically engaged. Carolyn Forché is a poet, editor, professor and human rights advocate and author of numerous award-winning poetry collections including Gathering the Tribe (1976), and The Blue Hour (2003).  From 1978 to 1980, she travelled repeatedly to El Salvador, where she bore witness to the violent repression of Salvadoran citizens by that country’s military dictatorship and arising out of that experience she wrote The Country Between Us (1981) based on her experiences of war in El Salvador. Carolyn Forché was influenced by the writings of  Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil.

Tonight’s event is a poetic exploration on poetry as witness and the way in which poetry can preserve memory, provide solace and reflect on the times we are living in. How do poets give voice to their own and other’s experiences from personal experiences of trauma, to times of conflict experienced by refugees or as a result of a legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland to the loss experienced during the recent pandemic.  The evening features work by extraordinary poets.

Poetry of Witness Background

According to Carolyn Forché ‘Many poets have written in the aftermath of extremity, having lived through wars as soldiers or civilians, and endured incarceration, exile, censorship, house arrest, banning orders and other forms of state-imposed repression. As they passed through these experiences, their language also passed, and was marked by suffering and brutality. Poems written in the aftermath of these horrors might be read as ‘witness’ to experience: personal, social, and historical. I began using this term to distinguish such works from the more polemical poems written in service to a political movement, which are sometimes attacked for being ‘political’.

Carolyn edited and provided an introduction to the poetry anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993). This book contains poetry by over 140 poets under the collective title Against Forgetting and is referred to as a poetry of witness.  According to Carolyn Forché the poets have ‘endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the twentieth century—through exile, state censorship, political persecution, house arrest, torture, imprisonment, military occupation, warfare, and assassination.’ She defines the work as ‘poetic witness to the dark times in which they [the authors] lived’.  Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader and former President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, said that ‘Poetry cannot block a bullet or still a jambok, but it can bear witness to brutality—thereby cultivating a flower in a graveyard. Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting is itself a blow against tyranny, against prejudice, against injustice. It bears witness to the evil we would prefer to forget, but never can—and never should.’