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Carolyn Forche

Carolyn Forche

After witnessing the atrocities of the brewing civil war in El Salvador in her early 20s, American poet Carolyn Forché (1950-) dedicated her writing career to activism. Forché came face to face with human pain and the extremes of political power during her two -ear stay in the country. She recorded these experiences in several poems, poetry collections, and books. Today, Forché is best known for the term "poetry of witness" and the work she has done to highlight the works of poets who write from places of oppression, imprisonment, and pain.

Carolyn Forché Biography

Carolyn Forché was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1950. She went to Michigan State University for her Bachelor of Arts and graduated in 1972. She then went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree at Bowling Green State University in 1975. Forché published her first poetry collection, Gathering the Tribes, the following year.

In 1977, Forché began traveling to foreign countries, an experience that defined her career and writing style. She went first to Spain, where she translated the works of various poets. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled her to travel to El Salvador and find her calling as a human rights advocate. As she witnessed the unfolding civil war, she also witnessed how children, especially girls, were treated cruelly and did not have adequate access to medical treatment.

Carolyn Forché, Human rights poster on pole, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Human rights became the focal point of Forché's writing after her time working as an activist and journalist in El Salvador.

Forché's second collection, The Country between Us (1981), centers around her time in El Salvador and calls attention to the human rights issues in the country. Forché has been called a political poet, but she prefers the term politically engaged poet. She coined the term "poetry of witness" in her 1993 anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. This anthology featured poets whose work was influenced by their own conditions, all of which were extreme such as exile, imprisonment, and war.

Forché has long been criticized for merging the poetic with the political. What is your impression of such criticism? Should poetry and politics be separated? What effect does combining them have?

Altogether, Forché has written five collections of poetry, the most recent being In the Lateness of the World (2020). She has also written several memoirs. Forché has won several awards for her works; and has held three fellowships. She currently works as University Professor at Georgetown University.

Carolyn Forché Facts

Forché is best known for coining the term "poetry of witness" in Against Forgetting (1993). She says that poetry of witness is "an event and the trace of an event" (33). Essentially, the poet responds to traumatic events, such as war, slavery, imprisonment, and oppression through the written word. Human pain is the center of these poems' ethical and political discussion. Poetry of witness helps readers to become more understanding and empathetic of the suffering of others.

Much of Forché's understanding of human rights comes from her faith. She was raised Roman Catholic, and many of her works have religious themes. In an effort to define faith for herself, Forché studied Protestant theology. After her seeing the suffering in El Salvador, she turned back to the Catholic church.

Carolyn Forché, Person praying on their knees, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Forché's human rights activism is deeply tied to her faith

Forché is the oldest of seven children in a Slovak and Irish family. It was her mother who encouraged her to experiment with poetry. She began writing in iambic pentameter when she was nine.

Forché was deeply influenced by the turbulent world of the mid to late 20th century. The controversial Vietnam War was ongoing when she completed her undergraduate degree in international relations. She read about the trials of the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who was exiled from his home country in 1972 by angry Soviet officials. Perhaps the most impactful event on her style as a poet was her time in El Salvador, as described above.

Carolyn Forché Books

Forché has written several memoirs, poetry collections, and edited anthologies of other writers' works. Below are three of her most popular books.

Gathering the Tribes

Forché's first book of poetry, Gathering the Tribes (1976), was published by Yale University Press after winning the 1975 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Forché was 24 when the book was published, and she used many of her own experiences as source material. Gathering the Tribes examines Forché's Slovak ancestry and childhood while examining themes of family, sexuality, and race.

The Country Between Us

The Country Between Us (1981) is Forché's second collection of poetry. It was named the 1981 Lamont Poetry Selection and quickly became a bestseller. The Country Between Us reflects on Forché's time in El Salvador and the horrible human rights abuses that she witnessed there. Forché originally wanted to tell the story through journalistic articles, but she found that poetry was the only way to truly express the full extent of the emerging civil war. This collection is both intimate and moving, as it reflects on injustice and trauma.

Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness

It is in Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993) that Forché coined the term "poetry of witness." In this anthology, Forché collected poetry from 140 different poets. The poets encompass a diverse range of races, faiths, and geographic locations. The one thing they all have in common is facing extreme conditions in the 20th century. According to Forché in the anthology's introduction, the poets she highlighted each "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."¹

Carolyn Forché Poems

Two of Forché's most memorable poems are "The Colonel" and "Exile."

"The Colonel"

Forché wrote "The Colonel" (1981) during her time in El Salvador. It was published in The Country Between Us (1993). The poem reads very much like a diary entry, as the speaker records what she witnesses at the colonel's dinner party. However, it is unclear whether these events are real or fabricated. The speaker sits beside the colonel at his dinner party. His house is similar to many American houses, and dinner seems to be going well. About halfway through, however, the poem shifts. The colonel states that it has become difficult to govern his people. When his parrot says hello, the colonel yells at the bird to shut up, gets up from the table, and returns with a bag of human ears. He spills the ears on the table with some falling to the floor. Then he curses at the speaker and her "people" and mocks her poetry.

Carolyn Forché, plate settings for a dinner party, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The peaceful illusion of the dinner party is destroyed as the colonel spills human ears over the table.

"Exile"

"Exile" was published in Forché's fifth collection of poetry, In the Lateness of the World (2020). "Exile" is dedicated to the poet Ilya Kaminsky (1977-). Kaminsky was a student in one of Forché's writing classes for seven years. He was born in Odessa, formerly part of the Soviet Union and now in Ukraine. His family was granted asylum to live in the United States in 1993. Kaminsky and Forché traveled to Odessa to experience Kaminsky's hometown together and learn more about great Russian poets. In "Exile," the speaker relies heavily on detailed imagery to create a sense of nostalgia and longing. The speaker discusses everything they would see if "you" were ever to return to the place of your childhood. At the end of the poem, the speaker hints that it is impossible to really get back the feeling of home that has been lost.

Carolyn Forché Quotes

Below are some of Forché's most famous and impactful quotes. They mostly speak to her human rights activism and the poetry of witness.

One can live without having survived.”

This quote was included in Forché's 2004 poem "Blue Hours." It is included in the collection by the same name. The poem was dedicated to Sean Christophe, Forché's son. It speaks to the loss that comes with age but also with trauma. This quote specifically focuses on the loss of trauma. Although people can literally live through slavery, exile, imprisonment, and war, there are pieces of them that will not survive. Their humanity, happiness, and human soul might not survive the pain.

“We are accustomed to rather easy categories: we distinguish between ‘personal’ and ‘political’ poems…The distinction…gives the political realm too much and too little scope; at the same time, it renders the personal too important and not important enough. If we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the most powerful sites of resistance. The celebration of the personal, however, can indicate a myopia, an inability to see how larger structures of the economy and the state circumscribe, if not determine, the fragile realm of the individual.”

This quote is from the intro to Against Forgetting. It speaks to the challenges of writing politically-engaging poetry. Forché argues that in the unstable, deeply flawed modern world, poets need to speak out against politics that are used as a tool of oppression. In order to write meaningfully about the pain caused by certain politics, poets need to write from their personal experiences. But at the same time, Forché realizes how complicated it is when personal poetry is attacked for not being objective. Meanwhile, personal poetry can also overlook the full complexity of political problems and oversimplify complex issues. In order to account for all of these nuances, Forché attempts to bridge this gap between the poetic and the political through poetry of witness.

Carolyn Forche - Key takeaways

  • Forché was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1950.
  • She became a human rights activist following her time in El Salvador.
  • She was deeply influenced by her travels, the conflict of the mid-20th century, and her faith.
  • She is best known for the term "poetry of witness."
  • Two of her most influential poems are "The Colonel" and "Exile."

References

  1. Forché, Carolyn. Against Forgetting: Twentieth-century Poetry of Witness. , 1993. Print.

Frequently Asked Questions about Carolyn Forche

Forché's poems were mostly about the political turmoil and human rights issues she saw during her time in El Salvador. 

Forché is best known for coining the term "poetry of witness." 

Forché is an American poet, editor, educator, and human rights activist. 

Forché is a politically engaged writer. 

She coined the term "poetry of witness" in her 1993 anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness.

Final Carolyn Forche Quiz

Question

Who is Carolyn Forché? 

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Carolyn Forché is an American activist and poet.

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Where was Carolyn Forché born? 

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Detroit, Michigan

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Where did Carolyn Forché experience human rights abuses and get involved in activism? 

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El Salvador

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What was the political and social situation like when Carolyn Forché was writing in the late 70s and early 80s?  

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The Vietnam War was ongoing. Soviet Union officials were still killing and exiling their political opponents. And political tension in El Salvador was brewing the civil war. 

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What influenced Forché's views on human rights?  

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Her Catholic faith

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Who did Forché write "Exile" for? 

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Poet Ilya Kaminsky

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What was Forché's first poetry collection, Gathering the Tribes, about?

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Her ancestry and childhood 

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What is The Country Between Us? 

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The Country Between Us is Forché's second poetry collection. It centers on her experiences in El Salvador. 

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What does the term "poetry of witness" mean? 

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Poetry of witness is when the poet responds to their own traumatic events, such as war, slavery, imprisonment, and oppression. Poetry of witness helps readers to become more understanding and empathetic of the suffering of others. It puts human rights into more humanistic terms instead of strictly political. 

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What is "The Colonel" about? 

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"The Colonel" is a poem in which the speaker attends a dinner part at a colonel's house in El Salvador. Although he acts pleasantly throughout the dinner, at the end he gets up and spills human ears onto the table. 

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Who wrote "The Colonel"? 

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"The Colonel" was written by Carolyn Forché. 

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When as "The Colonel" published? 

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It was published in 1981. 

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What is the setting of "The Colonel"? 

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El Salvador

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What is interesting about the imagery in the first half of the poem? 

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The imagery is mostly normal, everyday objects. The colonel has a TV, teenage children, dogs, and newspapers. 

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What violent objects does the colonel have in his house? 

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He has broken bottles embedded into the walls to slash his opponents. He also has barred windows and a pistol next to him. 

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What are the allusions in the poem? 

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The beginning of the civil war in El Salvador

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What does the colonel have in the grocery bag? 

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Severed human ears

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What are the themes in the poem? 

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The themes are casual violence and warfare, the threat of the Other, and apathy in the face of violence. 

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What genre of poetry is "The Colonel"? 

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It is a prose poem. 

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What are the ears a metaphor for? 

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Answer

The way that people in positions of privilege choose not to hear the suffering of the Central Americans who are abused and murdered.

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