About the dark times

Spent an hour yesterday at a “seminar,” really more of a group interview, with Carolyn Forché, editor/compiler of what may be my favorite book. Is is surely the most often referred to.

Against Forgetting, Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, anthology of poetry by those who’ve witnessed Brecht’s dark times: war, torture, exile, repression. It’s been sitting on a corner of my desk since the day I bought it, twenty years ago.

She covered a lot of ground in answering questions. Several interchanges touched on the role of the poet, with wide agreement that poetry has an obligation to show the truth — particularly bitter and brutal truth, as in so much of Forché’s work — but not to try to end to it by proposing or promoting counter brutality, violence, war. It called to mind an incident from almost fifty years ago, one I noted a few years ago in a different context, a lovely real-life expression of that idea.

One of the Marches on Washington in the late Sixties. I was in a group of veterans, all of us in ratty jeans or tattered fatigues, grizzled, loud. We were marching in battle-ready disarray toward the Mall, ready to show our opposition to war.

About half-way to wherever we were headed, I noticed a young couple in the middle of the crowd. Well-dressed, calm, pushing a baby carriage. And with several others, I found myself joining in a human shield around them, as if they needed to be protected.

Given the consequences of a few marches in our history, perhaps not so odd an idea.

Nothing did happen to them, or to the rest of us in that group. We marched, we listened, we stopped and ate and drank, and we got on the bus and rode back home.

They stayed in my mind though, that couple with the baby carriage. I felt they had done what we had not — they had put a human face on opposition to the war. Nixon could ignore rants and taunts from a motley crowd, could even point to our ragged display as proof of our disconnect from decent and honorable society.

He could not, however, ignore the quiet concern of normal, ordinary, respectable folk.

That has been a message I carried with me all these years from that march, and generally from other demonstrations as well. To be calm and reasonable is the only way to engage the opposition; violence only begets violence.

You can get a sense of Forché and her new book from a brief PBS interview now on-line.


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