Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts

Poetry & Human Rights

Poetry and Human Rights

Carolyn Forché’s ‘poetry of witness’ has never been more pertinent or more necessary.

The video is a discussion between Carolyn Forché and Shami Chakrabarti.

They look at the relevance of poetry to questions of witness, human rights and politics.

They consider how poetry offers a response to:

  • war
  • torture
  • imprisonment
  • other human rights abuses

They look at how we read this poetry. They also look at the relationship between being a reader and being a witness.

Poetry of witness

‘Poetry of witness’ is a term developed by Carolyn Forché. It emerges from a tradition of 20th century poetry.

It's where political circumstances pervade the poem, as they pervade the life of the poet.

In war, imprisonment, torture or forced exile, suffering, or the will to survive, impresses on poetic imagination.

An artist works on a painting during the discussion over poetry and human rights.
An artist works on a painting during the discussion over poetry and human rights.
Carolyn Forché in discussion with Shami Chakrabarti at the Curtis Auditorium.

Personal and political

The poetry of witness is not only political, nor is it personal. It explores how both spheres merge and interact with each other.

Carolyn Forché has written about how it may be wrong to abandon the personal. We then risk giving up a powerful alternative place, which can also be a site of resistance.

But celebrating the personal - for instance, in lyrics of love and loss – may be too narrow. It may fail to recognise how larger structures impact on ‘the fragile realm of the individual’.

Poetry, thought about in this way, has an important role to play. It can express the survival of our humanity, and sometimes is the only witness to it.

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