Two Poets of Witness

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WHEN Carolyn Forché released her groundbreaking anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, she did not include poems from the struggle for gay rights. The anthology was published in 1993, a bleak point in the history of the gay community due to the impact of AIDS on gay men and on the arts community. But, as readers today, we can easily situate AIDS poets in the panoply of poets of witness—those who write poetry that transcends the purely personal or the purely political and operates at their intersection. This is a type of poetry that exists in a space of resistance and re-orients points of view toward new ways of seeing and speaking. As a critical lens for understanding the cultural impact of poetry, Forché establishes an especially fruitful way of seeing poetry responding to AIDS.

At a time where the public discourse is too often framed by a very few politically correct ideologies, the variety of voices and formal approaches to understanding AIDS in the poetry of the first decade or two is reassuring, even as they articulate a profound sense of loss. AIDS poetry in the United States has played a particularly important role in shaping the language around the disease and the social, political, and cultural challenges faced by people living with it. Much of this poetry depends on the power of narratives to personalize a pandemic that could easily be reduced to statistics or medical jargon. AIDS poetry is equal parts grief, rage, desperation, love, action, and empathy. In it, there is a need to communicate the gravity of individual tragedy within the pandemic while also arguing for far-reaching social, political, and cultural change.

As one born during the height of Reaganism and the conservative fundamentalist movement, I have not known a world without AIDS.

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