Ears on the Floor: Poetry of Witness in a Post-Truth Era

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A few years ago, a woman in Spain attempted to restore a nineteenth-century church fresco, but in doing so ruined it completely. The result is less Savior than surreal simian, the delicate portrait painted over with a crude, monstrous “face.” Since the election it has been hard to shake the feeling that reality has been made worse, unrecognizable, in precisely this way. Of course we have handed over not a paintbrush, but power — all to someone who promises to desecrate our national ideals. It would be disheartening to hear art critics spin the wreckage as “folk art” just as it’s distressing to hear some people scrambling to normalize Trump, to resolve our collective cognitive dissonance. For the rest of us, in refusing to accept the cold comfort of compromise, we challenge ourselves to create better narrative, one that does not forget what has been painted over.

But how to shape a more useful narrative when it turns out we’ve been telling ourselves a failed story? In Adorno’s essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” he might as well be talking about political pundits and our social media era when he describes how easy it is for critics to lose touch with reality, saying that the mind molds itself “for the sake of its marketability, and thus reproduce[s] the socially prevalent categories,” which “leaves the individual consciousness less and less room for evasion.” Adorno points in part to how critics, in their privileged, distanced positions, with the assumed “objectivity of the ruling mind,” do not penetrate into the truth of things but rather help to “weave the veil.” We are blinkered by our ideas, losing touch with parts of the world; no wonder we were shocked when reality shifted abruptly away from our story.

What touches me about the ruined fresco is that people who had seen the image online began to show up at the Santuario de Misericodia church in Borja to see it in person. Hundreds came, many more than would have bothered to come see the original. There is a charm in the masses mobilizing for a meme, although I’m not sure exactly what prompted the pilgrimage. Probably many just wished to live the joke out to its bitter end, but I’d like to read this phenomenon as a yearning for immanence — as a way of insisting, in the era of Google Image, on the importance of individual observation, of movement beyond the screen. This is a trivial example, of course. But it does seem that the challenge now is how to tell ourselves a story that mobilizes action within the world, or at least does not forget the power of witnessing that world, of testifying to what is. Near the end of his essay, Adorno remarks that “even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter,” which really ought to be the motto of 2016, but cannot, must not, describe the next four years.

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“What you have heard is true,” begins a well known poem by Carolyn Forche. It’s a line that might make the reader suspicious of what’s to come, reading from within our era of clickbait and political gaslighting. With so little solid ground to stand on, why should we believe a poet?

Indeed, the Oxford Dictionaries has named “post-truth” the word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This term resonates when the president-elect consistently refuses responsibility for his own words and dismisses anything he doesn’t like as a lie. But in a New York Times op-ed William Davies argues that this issue touches us all, saying that facts “no longer provide a reality that we all agree on,” blaming this phenomenon on the facts-for-hire industry and social media, while fake news, too, has come under fire for its influence on the electorate. Certainly as readers we can be gullible to what suits our beliefs, and suspicious of what challenges them.

Poetry has always been post-truth in the sense that it prioritizes emotional subjectivity over objectivity, usually sacrificing the literal plane for the sake of truths located elsewhere — deeper, higher. Indeed, the term “poetic truth” would be oxymoronic if we demanded verifiable truths in poetry. As it is, this term folds back on itself without disclosing its meaning, relying more on historical understandings of poetry than any inherent quality of the medium itself. Poetic truth seems at least in part to be that moment of indefinable recognition that happens within the reader, a resonance emotional or intellectual or both, and though we can describe this as “true” it is hard to say exactly why. Although we demand a good faith attempt at literal truth from journalism, memoir, and the like, it is not the goal for a poem, and perhaps must always be sacrificed to some extent whenever language strives for beauty. But I don’t mean to imply that poems are primarily aesthetic, as many poems have intended their truths to resonate within a political consciousness, to shape society, and if we are in a “post-truth” era then perhaps there is more room, not less, for poetry to be part of the conversation.

Poetry of witness, which could be considered one of those historically contingent formulations of “poetic truth,” is a subgenre defined by Carolyn Forche in her 1993 anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. With this collection she sought to establish just what she meant by a poetics of witness, an idea that arose from her struggle to communicate her experiences as a human rights advocate in El Salvador in the 1970s. As a young (white) woman, she traveled there on fellowship with the intention to write primarily journalistic articles, although she found that she could not stop herself from writing poetry. If before she had been “ideologically vague,” this experience ended that. “It would change my life and work,” she said, “ … and prevent me from ever viewing myself or my country again through precisely the same fog of unwitting connivance.” She had to address what she had seen, and reconcile that with what is possible within poetry.

Forche struggled with bringing together the personal and political, and saw obvious difficulties in using the lyric mode to address a vast catalog of social ills. She noted that while the personal is “one of the most powerful sites of resistance,” it can also be myopic, failing to “see how larger structures of the economy and the state circumscribe, if not determine, the fragile realm of the individual.” But addressing injustice is also fraught. She wrote about the act of witness as “problematic,” saying that “even if one has witnessed atrocity, one cannot necessarily speak about it, let alone for it.” The lyric mode can all-too-easily appropriate suffering.

But witness nonetheless seems necessary within a society that muffles such testimonies. Language can become, Forche says, not just representation but “evidence that something occurred.” Even so, how to ask readers to “believe” a poem? Forche says that the poet will often “appeal to be believed by readers they know will be incredulous, because they know the events that their poems will describe will be unbelievable to people who haven’t experienced them.” Thus in her own poem, “The Colonel,” she begins by claiming herself as an authority in the face of rumor: “What you have heard is true.”

This piece, which she at first intended to be journalistic, stands as a brilliant example of her own poetic philosophy, and I would argue the result holds more power than an article might. It is also a piece that resonates in our current political climate as a kind of warning. The essence of a brutal man is contained perfectly in her colonel, who tells her with the brusque eloquence of a tweet: “As for the rights of anyone, / tell your people they can go f— themselves.”

In this poem Forche tells us everything we need to know about the banality of evil. “His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar.” The everyday and the violent are equated as props: “daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him.” There is a son, a daughter, a cop show on the TV, as in any house. Rich food and a gold bell on the table. This scene is contained and made possible by the walls around the house, which are embedded with glass meant “to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s leg.” Every bad man has a wall like this, whether literal or figurative. The wall keeps out dissent and disruptions to power. The wall normalizes the insanity it contains, by threatening anyone who attempts to cross it: “There was some talk of how difficult it had become to govern.”

I am speaking of the wall as a metaphor, but the wall of Forche’s poem was really there. This is part of the disorienting truth of the piece, which punches again with the surreal image of the ears: “The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries / home. He spilled many human ears on the table.” Some of these ears, swept to the floor, “caught this scrap of his voice,” while others “were pressed to the ground.” This twisted moment of disembodied listening and non-listening is such potent poetic imagery that I remember being shocked when I discovered, reading an interview, that those were real ears. The poetic truth of the image somehow prevented me from reading the literal truth, which is, as Forche warns, part of the problem of witness poetry. This parsing is complicated further by the colonel’s cold, preemptive line: “Something for your poetry, no?” The colonel himself mocks the poet’s act of witness, and implies that poetry is impotent, a diminishment.

The only answer to the colonel’s dismissal is the poem itself, in which the image actually takes on its full power. We are so used to violence that I’m not sure the ears would shock us with the same force in a straightforward article, even if they would be more obviously factual. I wonder if there is a lesson we can learn from poetry for the post-truth era, in which subjective, emotional understanding apparently trumps factual evidence. Forche recovers and heightens the power of a fact through poetry; she makes cliché violence fresh again. Perhaps we can take note of how such acts of witness can mobilize individual, specific suffering for greater emotional impact and perhaps even political action. Perhaps we should re-investigate what poetic truth can do, how the lyric can bear witness without resolving unbearable dissonance, and how careful, empathetic language might help us narrate a destabilized, surreal world. “There is no other way to say this,” Forche wrote. “He took one / of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water / glass. It came alive there.”

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Image via Agence France-Presse–Getty Images.

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