Showing posts with label Poetry of Atrocity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Poetry of Atrocity. Show all posts

Forum Thread: The Poetry of Atrocity and Bearing Witness

Back in the 1970s, some poets were excoriated because they would dare to write about atrocities that had little or nothing to do with them. For example, how could a non-survivor of the Holocaust bear witness to an atrocity he/she had not experienced?

It is hoped that the literary community has grown beyond the notion that one should be "censored" from discussing topics one has not experienced directly. While we might not be able to understand the nuances of an atrocity totally, writers are naturally sensitive souls who at the very least need to bear witness to crimes against humanity, even if only from the sidelines.

At a 2008 conference, poet William Heyen read his Hiroshima poem-in-progress based on images observed by a Japanese photographer who (just after the bomb exploded) jumped on his bicycle and rode toward ground zero. One of the most shocking images was that of a young mother who was carrying her infant's severed head in a bucket. A similar image can be found in John Hersey's Hiroshima: for days, a young mother carried her swaddled dead baby so that her husband (who was probably already dead) could see the body before burial. Both Heyen and Hersey are bearing witness to horrific events not experienced directly, but as writers have chosen to depict in their poetry and prose.

At the conference, this question was posed: are some atrocities so shocking and horrible that we should never write about them? No clear answer to this question. On one hand, to write about them might be terribly painful to the survivors and sensitive readers. On the other hand, to ignore them might mean forgetting and committing again.

A more interesting question: if an atrocity has been committed for altruistic reasons, as claimed by the Truman administration and other experts of 1945, should the transgressor be forgiven and given a pass? After all, it has been noted, millions of lives were probably saved, justifying sacrificing the 100,000-200,000 lives to save millions of others--the ends justifying the means.

Mr. Heyen offered an interesting answer: "Poetry will decide."

I felt as though my breath had been sucked out of my body. For me, the answer raised more questions than answers: Who or what is Poetry, and why should Poetry hold so much power to decide who is right and who is wrong?

Then I realized I was reacting too literally, that, perhaps, the body of poetry and art could act as judge and jury. But that is not a satisfactory answer either.

So I have attempted my own answer by writing my own atrocity poem--a familiar ethical dilemma rewritten in a loose poetic form.

Also, bear in mind this poem was written between two conference sessions (a session on Holocaust poetry and a poetry reading), thus, a very rough draft.

The Betrayer


in Mother's arms,

swaddled Baby

stretches, kicks.


Father's finger

to mouth--

Mother's offered:

Baby's snuffling.

Silent chorus:

Shush, Baby, shush

Muffled voice:

"Search the house!"

Ten souls

crammed inside.

Windowless passage,

portal obscured

by a cook stove.


Baby-face red,

nine paled faces.

Mother tearing--

cups Baby's mouth.

Footfalls clunk

through the wall.

"They gotta be here."

Vulgar voices,

doors slamming--


Rifle cocking,

"What's that?"

Sixteen glinting eyes

drilled on Mother

and Child:

We will die now.

Mother sucks

in breath.

"It's nothing,

just the wind."

Clanging doors,

slung rifles,



Witness this:


muffles it,

squeezes and--


"Nothing here."

William Heyen said something else: "It's okay to like your own poems."

Maybe so. However, the jury is still out on this one.

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