Poetry of Witness and Healing

As the new poetry editor of Streetlight, I find myself caught between the delights and demands of poetry and the nightmare of current events happening here in our nation and globally. I want to attempt to answer a question which, ironically, I haven’t actually heard being asked: of what value is poetry in this near-apocalyptic world we’re living in, a world where, at least in this country, we, absurdly, can’t even agree to keep guns out of the hands of known terrorists?

In many places in Europe and Asia poetry is not only an art form but is an act of witness to injustice, war, repression, genocide and other atrocities. While poetry is not a sword or gun it can be sharp, potent and powerful nonetheless. Countless poets and writers from Dante to Nadine Gordimer have been exiled or banned for speaking truth, as they see it, to the powerful and malignant forces surrounding them. Here is a well-known poem which still reverberates in our own time:

 

First They Came for the Jews by Martin Niemöller

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

 

Here’s another poem of witness, perhaps even more artfully constructed:

 

 

The End and the Beginning by Wislawa Szymborska, Translated by Joanna Trzeciak

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.

From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
rusted-out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.

 

Artists throughout history will not be silent. In their laments and elegies they have opened themselves and their poems to suffering and exploitation, including that of the besieged earth itself. Here’s a poem which does what all good poems do; it is specific and concrete, full of sensory details. It is also hopeful and yearning for a rich and generous future for coming generations:

 

Don’t Destroy the World by Ellen Bass

I want the future to extend before me like the horizon
widening as I walk. I want the blue sierra that I planted
squatting over the child in my womb
to grow into a thick tangled hedge
rich with blossoms and bees buzzing like crazy.
I want the smell to make someone’s great great
grandchildren
dizzy.

Imagine that we are all born
with the gift of time.

 

I invite you to submit your poems to Streetlight, poems which might occasionally move into another realm beyond the myopically personal; poems which connect the small self to the whole body of humanity. These poems are difficult to write without veering into diatribe or rant, without giving vent to an undisciplined torrent of emotion. But they are well worth the effort. They may stretch you as a writer, stretch us as readers as they enter that great stream of courageous poems of truth. They may become poems not only of witness but also of healing.


Sharon Ackerman

Before she turned to poetry Sharron was a Social Worker serving low-income families and the mentally ill and worked as a community organizer around issues of civil rights and the anti-nuclear war movement.

Her poems have appeared in Agni, Rattle, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, among others. In 2009 she won the James River Writers Contest and was named the Poet of 2010 by the journal Passager. She also won 1st place prizes in 2010 and 2012 in the Poetry Society of Virginia annual contest, 1st place in the MacGuffin Poet Hunt contest in 2012 and 1st place in the Sixfold Contest in 2013. In 2015 she won the Thomas Merton Award for Poetry of the Sacred. Her chapbook, A Thin Thread of Water was published in 2010 by Finishing Line Press.

She teaches poetry in Charlottesville and in her town of Scottsville, is married with two children and five grandchildren.

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