Course Introduction

Poetry of Witness is in some ways an amorphous term. Scholar Duncan Wu, within the anthology Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English 1500—2001, defines the poet of witness as an “artist who confronts extremity—whether imprisonment, torture, or warfare.” U.S. poet Carolyn Forché states in the introduction to Against Forgetting that poetry of witness is a third space, “the space between the state and the supposedly safe havens of the personal.” More recent poets have suggested that by virtue of our screens and our globalized world, any of us today can experience extremity and thus become poets of witness to the injustices in our world. In terms of aesthetic and perhaps even inspirational considerations, Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert states in his poem “Five Men” that “the purpose of poetry must still be to ‘once again/in dead earnest/offer to the betrayed world/a rose.’” In this course, we will be interrogating the term poetry of witness. We will try to determine whether poetry of witness is defined solely by its thematic content or whether the poetry can also be defined by aesthetic elements.

Course Objectives

  • Students will be able to create a working definition for the term poetry of witness
  • Students will be able to understand some of the historical and social circumstances that gave rise to poems responding to the Holocaust, various Latin American civil wars, and anti-blackness and White supremacy (Black Lives Matter)
  • Students will learn about the complexities of the human condition
  • Students will be able to perform close readings of literary texts in oral and written form
  • Students will be able to argue a point in a concise written form with attention to MLA citation style and Academic English conventions
  • Students will be able to produce a 6 page critical research essay with a minimum of two sources on one of the literary texts in the course
  • Students will be able to create a podcast episode discussing a poem of witness