Monday, June 23, 2008

June Poetry Prompt 2 - Poetry of Witness

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.

Little Tricks

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.

Mara Bergman

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.


Stephen Fryer said...


Today he’s Robert Capa. Don’t worry,
he’s often like this. He can’t see you
or hear,
not when he’s like this.

He always has his camera
at the ready. Capa said
"If your photographs aren't good enough,
you're not close enough." Capa was feet away
from the Loyalist Militiaman when he caught him
in black and white
in the act of dying.

Yesterday he was Nick Ut.
Kim Phuc screamed Nong qua, nong qua
as the napalm burned. Nick had little time
to chose between his two cameras - a Leica
or a Nikon with a long lens. The Leica caught her
in black and white
as she ran close by.

He gets like this each November.
November is when they hand out the photography Pulitzers.
November is when he never got a Pulitzer even though
he was close enough.

Waking with a start last night
he was Stanley Forman. From the burning balcony
Diana Bryant and three-year-old Tiare Jones were falling,
falling. Luckily, he was in position
to snap a sequence
in black and white
as they fell.

Tomorrow he could be near enough
to do something.

But when he’s like this
he’s Capa.

Sharra said...

At the market

Wide-eyed she plods
between the animals,
her belly ripe

with black packages.
A surrogate ready to deliver
for the unknown father.

His finger strokes
the button, feels
his muscles contract
before it explodes
out of her.

The blasts on Friday 1st February 2008 at two animal markets in Baghdad left 99 people dead and up to 200 wounded, officials said. Iraq's chief military spokesman in Baghdad, told the BBC: "The operation was carried out by two booby-trapped mentally disabled women. [The bombs] were detonated remotely".

Sharra said...

P.S. Hi Stephen! :)

Alyss Dye said...

What’s happening in this picture?

A group of young men
in brightly coloured baseball caps and shirts are searching for
a lost golf-ball in the rough,
beating down the long grass with their sticks.

Look again.

Or are they simply mucking about in the field?
One of the men appears to be sitting relaxing in the sun
and his friends are grouped
in front of him
so that we cannot see his face.

Look again.

Or perhaps they are hunting a small animal and have it cornered because one man raises his stick
while the others push their sticks together on the ground
to form a trap.

Look again.

It is not an animal
but the body of a human being
and the resting man is, in fact, tied to a chair
with electric wire.

(Zimbabwe June 2008)

Margaret Beston said...

Four steel bolts

‘Four steel bolts from a set of points the train
had just crossed were found lying at the side
of the track’ February 2007

Four steel bolts beside the track.
Speeding wheels jolt, judder
take off unfettered into space
propelling pinball bodies
into a kaleidoscope
of mobile phones and shoes
crash landing in a muddy field.

Four steel bolts beside the track.
Siren screams invade dazed silence
in a world turned upside-down.
Urgent arms cut through wreckage
pull victims into welcome rain.
Searchlights spot slow-motion figures
stumbling lost in a muddy field.

Four steel bolts beside the track.
Sympathy, kindness, cups of tea
braziers burning in a barn
as strangers comfort strangers
identified by injuries: cuts and bruises
damaged back, critical, stable –
one woman dead in a muddy field.

Margaret Beston
June ‘08

Lynne Rees said...

Thanks for posting these - they're all impressive poems. It's going to be a hard choice this month!

charlotte segaller said...

Means to end

Soot-black, scraped back
bobbing ponytail hair
on her slender head.
Screaming red sari
in the dust, she’s kneeling
so still,
back straight as a ruler,
every muscle fiber
holding its

and her hands are
flickering, twitching, stitching
onto high street clothes
glittering tiny gold discs
where the dancing light plays.
The light
in her eyes,
an inner light,
twelve year old delight
at being caught
on camera.

Behind, her rootless mother,
swish swish swish,
is sweeping away the dirt.
A close up shows the
beauty of the
intricate embroidery work
(her life is in her fragile hands)
and how cleverly, how
the thread is
cut off.

anne.kenny said...

(Burma, 2006)

Each full moon day, monks receive saffron robes;
the giver wanting to avoid an endless journey.
Some cannot give their blood-red cloaks
for all their riches were bought through misery.
We are told, at his daughter’s wedding, the bride
drenched with rubies, poured champagne
beside an ornate golden bed, whilst nearby
those in ragged clothes began to stir.

The forests there are full of creatures
like the crested bull, tethered to eternity
who recalls crushing the flowering crocus;
the blinding sparkle of jewels around her neck.

Anne Kenny

Linda W said...


Bad enough that he died
in perfect health with a good thirty years to go,
but then his body was raped of its parts.

Some old alcoholic got the liver.
The kidneys were gouged out
and rushed off in a freezer box.
they cast lots for his heart,
careful to keep it whole.

And what of his mouth
that lifted in a smile
when he talked of his garden,
ears cocked for the sound of birdsong,
fingers that twisted up weeds,
dug the soil and turned it?
They did not need the rest,
said we could burn it.

margaret beston said...

Good to see you here Linda!

Shazeea said...

The political situation in Malaysia is heated to say the least. A change in government appears to be inevitable and the stakes are high. The result is slander, lies and allegations

Sea of
brown, black, yellow.
Malay, Chinese, Indian.
Theist, atheist, Buddhist,
Taoist, Muslim, Hindu.
One. True unity.

Waiting for leader.
Enduring youth leader, vice leader, deputy leader, celebrity leader, accidental leader.
And then...

He walks in to rapturous applause.
Hands waving, fists pumping, voices chanting.
Re-for-ma-si. Reform. Battle cry.
Hope springing after days of dark bleak.
Star shining like the North Star.

Words of truth, beauty, dignity
Stringing through the air.
"He is so charismatic," they say. "Look at his smile."
Innocence unearthing lies - ugly, brash, unimaginative.
Words of fury, men jumping on seats
Pledges of unequivocal support.

Leaders lead and leader leaves.
Waves of body scramble out into the cool air.
Streams of people.

Sea of
old, young, rich, poor,
radical, fanatic, sideliner, passer-by.
True unity. One.

Catherine Smith said...

Loved readings these poems, all very moving and different and Lynne, what a brilliant suggestion for an exercise. I'd love to try this, for myself and with students! You are so generous with prompts/ideas - this is the true spirit of poetry. You're a fine teacher as well as a fine poet.

Lynne Rees said...

Hello shazeea - thanks so much for contributing to AppleHouse with a poem exploring the tension and events in your country. I'm sorry I'm late in responding to your post; for some reason I never received a notification. I hope to see you here again.

Hi Catherine - lovely to have your encouragement, hon. And yes, by all means take this and use it with your students. I'm sure Mara won't mind you using her poem, if you wanted to.

Lynne x