Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness

In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.
—Bertolt Brecht

Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness collects poetry by over 140 poets who, according to the anthology’s editor Carolyn Forché, "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." By gathering work that she defines as, "poetic witness to the dark times in which they [the authors] lived," Forché intended Against Forgetting to reveal the ways in which tragic events leave marks upon the imagination. Even in poems that do not explicitly take historical events as their subject matter, tragedy's after-image floats beneath the surface of the language.

Against Forgetting is organized according to historical tragedy, starting with the Armenian Genocide and proceeding through the twentieth century to the pro-democratic demonstrations in China. Each section is preceded by a short statement that gives historical background for the events in order to place the poems in a proper context. Within the sections, the poets are organized chronologically according to their year of birth and Forché presents a brief biographical note elucidating the poet's personal experiences with the historical situation.

In the introduction, Forché bemoans the scarcity of material translated from African and Asian literatures; however, in spite of this challenge Forché assembles a diverse group of poets from five continents. Familiar voices from America and Europe, like Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Robert Lowell, Charles Simic, and H. D., mix with poets from Africa (Wole Soyinka and Dennis Brutus), Asia (Bei Dao and Duoduo), the Middle East (Ali Ahmad Sa’id and Yehuda Amichai), and Latin America (Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo).

Of this anthology, Nelson Mandela said, “Poetry cannot block a bullet or still a sjambok, 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.”