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Witnesses and Outsiders: Study Questions for Poetry



1) In the introduction to the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, pubished by W.W. Norton & Co. in 1993, editor Carolyn as Forché aserts that the definition of the “poetry of witness” must be enlarged. In addition to other factors, she suggests these types of poems, in and of themselves, bear the burden of testimony (30).

Besides Forche’s famous poem “The Colonel”, one contemporary example of this type of poetry might include “Witness,” by Eavan Boland which concludes with the line  “And the dead walk?” ( The Lost Land, W.W. Norton & company, 1998).  Another example maybe seen in Mark Doty’s poem “Long Point Light,” first published in The Atlantic. Here the speaker invites “green witness at night’s end” into the poem.

In what ways might the following poems be considered “witness poetry?”  Keep in mind such “enlargements” of the definition such as the intersections of gender, race, class as well as physical, psychological and political/historical factors.

Can an argument be made for the idea that these poems rescue themselves from the “confessional mode?” If so, why? If not, why not?


“The Kindness of the Blind” - Wislawa Szymborska

“As Children Together” - Carolyn Forché

“When You Return” - Ellen Bass

“July In The Jardin des Plantes” - Claire MacAllister

“Gacela of The Dark Death” - Federico Garcia Lorca

“Cassandra” - Robinson Jeffers

“Second Hand Coat” - Dorianne Laux 

“Keeping Things Whole” - Mark Strand

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Proofrock" - T.S. Eliot

“Siren” - Louise Gluck

“Daddy” - Sylvia Plath

“(Buffalo Bill’s)” - e.e. cummings

“Slow Dance”- Matthew Dickman

“Canary” - Rita Dove

“The Pennycandystore Beyond The El” - Lawrence Ferlinghetti

“How I Didn’t Get Myself to a Nunnery” - Suzanne Lummis

“Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” - Margaret Atwood

“Frieda Kahlo To Marty McConnell” - Marty McConnell

“Icarus” - Edward Field

“Listener” - Joseph Millar


What other contemporary poems seem to speak for—not just of— the dead?  In what ways can a poem bear the burden of testimony?



2) “I affirm that,” Czeslaw Milosz writes in The Witness of Poetry, published by Harvard University press in 1983, “every poet is making a choice between the dictates of poetic language and his fidelity to the real” (71). 

Does the “poetry of witness” have to choose between the two? Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: a poem can be both faithful to itself as a literary construct and faithful to subject matter. Can you offer specific examples?


3) The Poetic Dictionary, edited by John Dury in 1995 and published by Story Press, defines “ ‘Ubi Sunt’ poems as “used to introduce a roll-call of the dead” or “to suggest how transitory life is” (294).   One contemporary example of this can be seen in Adele Kenny’s poem “Where They Are Now,” published in TIRERET, in 2006. The poet asks the reader to contemplate where the dead may be resting: “Are they there in that place where/stars and human hearts begin?...)

Randall Jarrell’s famous poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” asks no questions overtly. Yet, one might say it is very much a modern “ubi sunt” poems. Do you agree or disagree?

Is it possible for contemporary poetry move beyond the strict definition?




4)  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary “marginalize” is defined as “to put or keep (someone) in a powerless or unimportant position within a society or group. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/marginalize

In what ways, if any, is the role of poetry in giving a voice to those who are typically seen in our society as having “unimportant positions” or are relegated to the “powerless” positions?

Identify examples of  poems which are--or were--written by those who are typically seen in our society as having “unimportant positions” or are relegated to the “powerless” positions.

Explain how intersections of race, class, gender might influence the creation of such poems.

What obstacles, if any, might influence how such poems come into the mainstream of literature?

In your view, does poetry have the power to change perceptions of those groups which are typically thought of an “powerless” or “unimportant.”  If  so, how? If not, why not?








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