I was given a writing assignment to write a poem of witness, where it describes writing about an issue in society. I'm a bit unsure of how to proceed because the assignment doesn't describe much about exactly how to write such a poem, other than to write it about something you care about. Anyone have a good example of this kind of poem?

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I Googled "poetry of witness" and came up with several hits. I could try to piece together a detailed (and uninformed) answer based on that, but it seems to me that if you don't know what you should be doing for the writing assignment, you really need to ask your instructor.

However, the first hit suggests that:

Poetry of witness is a type of poetry that attempts to reveal human pain through the art of words. Poetry of witness allows for a limited understanding, and sometimes transcendence, of human tragedy.

Other than that, it doesn't seem to have any particular style; it seems it's the subject that's important, not the style.

But, again, ask your instructor. That's what instructors are for. Even if an answer is given here, it may not be the particular answer that you need.


There's an article in The New Yorker called Poetry in Extremis, which seems to be as good an introduction to Poetry of Witness as any you will find. There are some good examples in the article, but more importantly there is an attempt at an explanation of what constitutes a poem of witness.

One extract reads:

“The Colonel” (poem of witness by Carolyn Forché) describes the poet’s dinner at the home of a military man. After the meal—“rack of lamb, good wine”—the officer leaves the room and comes back with a grocery bag full of human ears, which he spills onto the dinner table. He tells the poet that human-rights workers can go fuck themselves, then raises his glass in an ironic salute and says, “Something for your poetry, no?”

I wouldn't suggest that you need to write about something as gruesome as this, but if you were to follow the instructions and 'write it about something you care about' whether this is about terrorism, urban decay or the contribution of high-sugar drinks to obesity then whatever you do write will, by definition, be accurate.

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