In a sense all poems are poems of witness: they record what it's like to be alive, record what has passed, what is passing. They bear witness to the imagination, the capacity for human invention; they witness our ability to wonder. But let’s look at ‘witness’ in a more particular way.
A poem of witness looks out from the self, towards the world, its social, political and historical aspects. It witnesses other people’s lives.
One of the risks of writing about what we know, about ourselves, our lives and experiences, is that we can become trapped by our own self-importance, our own viewpoint of the world as defined by race, gender, values, beliefs.
However, I’m not saying that a poem about a world event has any more value than a poem about our grandmother. We need to write from our own experience, and some poets do that almost entirely, but it’s good to remind ourselves that experience can be imaginative as well as physical. We can write about lives and events that are beyond our direct experience, the link to them being that we care, and what we care about we tend to put into writing. And if we care enough, other people will care too.
Here’s a poem by the wonderful poet, editor and children’s picture book writer, Mara Bergman. Some of you might remember the news-story from a few years ago.
Two babies in one,
fused at the spine, joined
at the abdomen, their limbs
ramrodded at right angles.
Nine months in the making.
And then a second trick –
in less than a day, a team of experts
separates bone, flesh, a body
from its heart, and magically
the girls are free, apart for an instant
before one is able to live
without having to pump blood
for two, breathe for two, drag
her sister’s body. She’ll survive
through little tricks: the first,
to ease the strain of being alone,
one cold mirror
placed beside her.
I remember Mara bringing this to a workshop, and I remember being so moved by it. It’s deceptively simple. The straightforward language disguises the amount of craft that has gone into its making, e.g. the weight of the words fused, joined and ramrodded in the first stanza, the ordered progression of the stanzas which complements what’s happening in the poem, the line and stanza break at magically/ which gives me the sensation of the magician’s cloth being suddenly pulled away, and the image in the last two lines which manages to be both cold and caring. I particularly like that closing image for the contrasting ideas it suggests. Magic is often accomplished through the use of mirrors, though historically a mirror was also used to check to see if someone was breathing. There’s so much to say about this poem I could probably write a short essay about it!
So here’s your challenge:
Find a news story, or remember a story (or an image) that has affected you, and write a poem based around that. Try and stay ‘invisible’ as Mara has done in her poem. Bear witness to the event without commenting on yourself. Let your description be significant too: let the images carry ideas and meaning, and work consciously with form: ask yourself how what the poem is about, its emotional drive, can be communicated in your line lengths and breaks and in the stanza formation.