Carolyn Forché Forché, Carolyn (Vol. 83) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carolyn Forché 1950–

(Full name Carolyn Louise Forché) American poet, journalist, editor, and translator.

The following entry provides an overview of Forché's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 25.

Chiefly regarded as a political poet, Forché is best known for The Country between Us (1982), which graphically documents the horrors inflicted upon the Salvadoran people during the Civil War of the late 1970s. Reacting against critics who fault her inclusion of partisan themes, Forché has asserted: "All poetry is both pure and engaged, in the sense that it is made of language, but it is also art. Any theory which takes one half of the social-esthetic dynamic and accentuates it too much results in a breakdown. Stress of purity generates a feeble estheticism that fails, in its beauty, to communicate. On the other hand, propagandistic hack-work has no independent life as poetry. What matters is not whether a poem is political, but the quality of its engagement."

Biographical Information

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Forché was raised in its neighboring suburbs and attended Catholic schools. She developed an interest in literature at age nine when her mother gave her a poetry anthology to read and suggested that she try writing a poem. Forché has commented that writing then became "an escape. Writing and daydreaming. Writing was simply the reverie that I recorded, and I wrote volumes of diaries and journals. Then, when I wasn't writing, when I was doing housework or whatever, I kept some sort of little voice running in my mind. I told myself narratives, and I made a parallel life to my own. It was completely imaginary, and most of the time everything would take place a hundred years earlier on the same spot where I was. I suspected, when I was young, that this was madness, but I couldn't give it up." Forché attended Michigan State University and later earned an M.F.A. from Bowling Green State University. After the publication of her prizewinning debut collection, Gathering the Tribes (1976), she traveled to Spain where she lived with exiled Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría and, in translating Alegría's poetry into English, learned of the Salvadoran Civil War. Upon her return to the United States, she was visited by Leonel Gómez Vides, Alegría's cousin and an activist in El Salvador who encouraged Forché to witness the situation in Central America. Forché journeyed to El Salvador in 1978 in an attempt to document the war. Fearing for her life, she left the country in 1980 at the urging of her friend Archbishop Oscar Romero—two weeks before he was assassinated. A staunch critic of the United States's military support of the Salvadoran government's repressive forces, Forché wrote of her experiences in various journals and, eventually, in The Country between Us. Forché continues to remain politically active: she has served on various committees studying the situation in Central America; she has worked for Amnesty International and the Western chapter of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists (PEN); and she has been employed as a foreign news correspondent in Beirut, Lebanon.

Major Works

The largely autobiographical Gathering the Tribes, which won the 1975 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, has been praised for its focus on community, kinship, memory, ritual, and sexuality. The long poem "Burning the Tomato Worms," for example, concerns Forché's sexual awakening, her relationship with her Slovak grandmother, and her grandmother's upbringing. The Country between Us, for which Forché earned the 1981 Lamont Selection of the Academy of American Poets, established her reputation as a political poet. The collection is divided into three sections: "In Salvador, 1978–1980," "Reunion," and "Ourselves or Nothing." The first details the horrifying events Forché witnessed in Central America and her eventual return to the United States. In the prose poem "The Colonel," for instance, she focuses on El Salvador's totalitarian regime and the mutilation inflicted on political prisoners. The second and third sections of the book continue to emphasize the importance of memory and witness, but additionally stress the importance of interpersonal relationships as a means of achieving peace and communion. Comprised of a single poem, the third section is dedicated to Holocaust scholar Terrence des Pres and is often considered representative of Forché's poetics and political beliefs. The piece concludes: "There is a cyclone fence between / ourselves and the slaughter and behind it / we hover in a calm protected world like / netted fish, exactly like netted fish. / It is either the beginning or the end / of the world, and the choice is ourselves / or nothing." Focusing, in part, on the acts of genocide that have occurred in Latin America and the inhumanity of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, Forché's book-length poem, The Angel of History (1994), is similarly concerned with war, human misery, remembrance, and survival.

Critical Reception

Forché has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships yet her work has often been faulted for what some critics consider its overt polemics. Some scholars, however, argue that all poetry can be interpreted as a political message on some level and note that Forché's work signals the need for new schools of criticism and poetics that deliberately emphasize the political arena. Sharon Doubiago has asserted: "[This] poet, this extraordinary woman has already gone further than most ever will in trying to authenticate her voice, immersing herself and her language in the 'real' and very dangerous world. She has used her verbal training like a guerilla uses intimate knowledge of the land, taking the aesthetic jammed into her as a young working class woman gone to college and jamming it right back into the real, the political. This is a poetry of terrible witness, the strains of our villainies on the language and ethical constructs undoubtedly show. Thus the phrase 'the country between us.'"

Larry Levis (essay date July 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[An American poet, Levis won the International Poetry Forum United States Award in 1971, the Lamont Poetry Prize in 1976, and a National Poetry Series Award in 1981. In the excerpt below, originally given as a speech in July 1981 at the Aspen Writers' Conference in Aspen, Colorado, he discusses the problems associated with attempting to convey the atrocities of war through literature and Forché's poetic treatment of the subject of violence.]

What is it like to write about or to photograph a war that is going on now, that was going on last week, last year? In the post-Vietnam era, I believe that one of the most difficult problems is to convey, simply, information, facts which sound, to those who are comfortable, like "improbable tales." For any advance which might be called humane and positive, there are advances in warfare which might be called cynical and retrograde. Anyone writing about war now must bear witness to two phenomena common to any war but ostensibly more intentional and widespread now: torture and mutilation.

Item: June 20, 1981. I am staring at a photograph by Susan Meiselas which depicts a dead Nicaraguan, apparently a man and, in all probability, one who rebelled against the deposed dictator, Anastasio Samoza Debayle. I assume this because the location of the photograph, "Cuesta del Plomo," is a hillside near Managua where the National Guard carried out its assassinations. Actually, the photograph shows only half a man—the legs, clad in jeans, and, above them, a spine with all of the ribs snapped off or hacked off by some sort of macheté or tool. Some of the stubs of the stronger ribs still show in the picture. The spine resembles a delimbed tree trunk at first but soon it resembles nothing but a spine. Other bones litter the foreground. The background looks, except for a few patchy areas, as if it could be a tropical postcard with a bay, trees, and mountains in the distance. But what one notices is a spine. The rebel is not only dead, but mutilated beyond any purpose one might have who thinks of burial. There is no suggestion that his limbs were cut off and strewn in this field out of rage; it looks too much like a calculated design, a design which is, at the same time, casual. After a few moments I realize the intention of this: mutilation, too, has become a kind of art. Perverse? Nihilistic? Maybe. But art: the corpse is on display; it is meant to be seen, although it could hardly be identified by anyone looking here, for a loved one, for someone lost. The photograph by Meiselas was taken in Nicaragua, but it could just as easily have been take in Argentina, El Salvador, or Guatemala.

Item: From "Letter from El Salvador," by Tom Buckley, The New Yorker, June 22, 1981.

On April 29th, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted, 26-7, to require President Reagan to certify, as a condition for further military aid, that "indiscriminate torture and murder" by Salvadoran security forces were being brought under control. On May 11th, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is controlled by Republicans, passed a similar measure … It acted over the protest of Secretary Haig, who said in a letter to the committee that such a bill "would encourage left-wing insurgents and other extremists."

Item: Buckley, above.

El Salvador is receiving a hundred and forty-four million dollars in economic aid and thirty-five and a half million dollars in military aid in the fiscal year that ends on September 30th. The sums that Congress is considering for the 1982 fiscal year are ninety-one million dollars and twenty-six million dollars, respectively. No one doubts, however, that large supplemental appropriations will be sought.

And finally:

Even that sum became small change when the Reagan Administration announced on June 3rd that it had approved in principle a comprehensive program of economic and military aid for the nations of the Caribbean and Central America. Its purpose, like the old Alliance for Progress, would be to counter Communist, particularly Cuban, influence by improving the standard of living under capitalism.

Buckley ends his article with an account, published in the Times, of two hundred peasants who were massacred on the Honduran border as they tried to cross the Lempa River to safe territory. Witnesses said many were machine-gunned, from the air, by a helicopter, "probably one of those supplied by the United States."

Parables, like [Zbigniew] Herbert's, come into existence because they abstract their designs from experience that is already complete, and which can, therefore, become a subject of contemplation. It is experience which has ended, which has entered into, if not chronological history, at least the maker's psychic history. But how can one make a parable out of last week's massacre and preserve his or her sense of artistic integrity? Or even sanity? One might also ask whether the experience of contemporary warfare is fit for parable. When a situation is immense, such as Hitler's occupation of Europe, then perhaps Herbert's parables or Camus' allegory of that war, The Plague, can, through miniaturization, make it visible. For what Hitler did was common experience, it was known. The difficulty for anyone writing about El Salvador is to make known what, in fact, is happening there, to reveal a brutal, and otherwise wholly ignorable "small" war—yet one that has claimed, since January 1980, over 22,000 lives.

Lowell's lines, in such a context, begin to sound ominously prophetic: "peace to our children when they fall / in small war on the heels of small war—until the end of time." But Lowell's perspective is long. Susan Meiselas's camera is only about eight feet from that spine. And how can anyone, poet or journalist, write about torture, massacre, and mutilation without sounding hyperbolic? It is a difficult art, but one which can be done. Here is Carolyn Forché's poem, "The Colonel":

What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were imbedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings as there are in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack as is used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around, he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and raised the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

El Salvador, May 1978

There are moments when life imitates art, when what appears to be on the surface a slightly surrealistic prose poem—a poem wholly imagined—is, in fact, a realistic, reportorial account of a dinner party. Had the poem been written without reference to El Salvador, its effect would be altered, changed by the fact of its being imagined. This is, unfortunately, not the case here. Children often ask: "Is this a real story?" So do adults. Carolyn Forché, who over a two-year period made several visits to El Salvador as a journalist and an observer for Amnesty International, writes the following account of the poem [in her "El Salvador: An Aide Memoire"]:

I was taken to the homes of landowners, with their pools set like aquamarines in the clipped grass, to the afternoon games of...

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Carolyn Forché (essay date July-August 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The following is a revised version of a speech Forché originally gave in March 1981 at one of the first meetings of PEN West, the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists. Here, she discusses the atrocities she saw in El Salvador, the role of the United States in the region, the relationship between poetry and politics, and her literary aims.]

The year Franco died, I spent several months on Mallorca translating the poetry of Claribel Alegria, a Salvadorean in voluntary exile. During those months the almond trees bloomed and lost flower, the olives and lemons ripened and we hauled baskets of apricots from Claribel's small finca. There was...

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Carolyn Forché with Jonathan Cott (interview date 14 April 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Cott is an American editor, producer, poet, essayist, and critic. In the following, Forché discusses her childhood, her literary influences, her travels in Central America, and her writing.]

[Cott]: Walt Whitman once wrote: "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." How do you see the state of American poetry today?

[Forché]: I was talking to a poet the other day, and he said something very interesting. "I feel," he told me, "that I'm in exile in my own country." And it seems to me that much of the poetry written today is about this exile. In a way, there's a tendency for poets to abandon the culture at large and...

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Terence Diggory (review date Fall 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[An American educator and critic, Diggory is the author of Yeats and American Poetry: The Tradition of the Self (1983). In the following excerpt, he provides a thematic analysis of The Country between Us, discussing its relationship to Gathering the Tribes and its focus on political concerns.]

The honors showered upon Carolyn Forché during her brief career so far do not compensate for the misunderstanding that has accompanied them. Following her debut in the Yale Series of Younger Poets with Gathering the Tribes (1976), her second volume, The Country Between Us, was written under NEA and Guggenheim sponsorship, judged by the Poetry Society of America to be...

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Michael Greer (essay date Spring 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the essay below, Greer examines Forché's poetry "as a phenomenon that is, in its very constitution and production, social, historical, and political."]

In the four years since their publication, the poems of Carolyn Forché's The Country Between Us have been identified with a renewed debate concerning the claims, the merits, and the possibilities for "political poetry" in contemporary America. They have been taken as an occasion for critical pronouncements on the question of "mixing art and politics" and have been widely praised as well as strenuously criticized. The apparent plurality of critical opinion surrounding The Country Between Us would seem to suggest that the...

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Carolyn Forché with Jill Taft-Kaufman (interview date January 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Taft-Kaufman is an educator. In the following interview, Forché discusses her aims as a poet, her works-in-progress, and her experiences as a public speaker and political activist.]

[Taft-Kaufman]: Carolyn, you described your original experience in El Salvador as having created a "focused obsession" for you. Can you speak a little bit about that?

[Forché]: Well, I've discussed elsewhere at great length the conditions under which I went to El Salvador and what happened to me there. But to address the concern about the singular focus that emerged from that experience, I think it was highly personal for me, my response to the sense of obligation that I felt toward...

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The Country Between Us….

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Right. So, it's now eight years. I've many, many notebooks, but what I see when I examine the notebooks now are phases of development toward the work I'm doing at present. I see it in embryonic stages early on, and I begin to see what I thought were simply notes, because they didn't resemble my earlier work, were, actually in early form, the work that I have now begun to do … the new work, in other words. I didn't recognize it at first. I thought it was failed old work.

So, you see it now as the culmination of an implicit building process, that you were not aware was actually happening. Can you describe how your 1981 work, which was, as a lot of people would say, political … although I think...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Doubiago, Sharon. "Towards an American Criticism: A Reading of Carolyn Forché's The Country between Us." The American Poetry Review 12, No. 1 (January-February 1983): 35-9.

Responding to negative reviews of The Country between Us, Doubiago lauds the volume's political content and calls for a new school of criticism that recognizes that all writing—whether poetry or criticism—is politically motivated.

Gleason, Judith. "The Lesson of Bread." Parnassus 10, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 1982): 9-21.

Applauds Forché's focus on the Salvadoran Civil War and the...

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