The Compassionate Witness: Attending to Suffering through Proxy Witness Poetry

Dale Tracy is a PhD candidate in English literature at Queen’s University working on a dissertation engaging with witness literature, compassion and attention.

The phrase “proxy witness” is first developed in Susan Gubar’s Poetry after Auschwitz while “witness poetry” is attributable to Carolyn Forché. I came to understand these texts as proxy witness poetry in Brenda Carr Vellino’s graduate course ‘The Proxy Witness in Twentieth-Century Human Rights Poetry’ at Carleton University.

In the genre known as poetry of witness, the poetic speaker offers testimony of the experience of atrocity. This speaker is typically considered to relay objective fact, opening up the truth of the suffering for the reader. To me, the claim that a poem is objective seems a strange one that forecloses the power that poetry has to represent ideas in new and thought-provoking ways; if a poem is caught up in maintaining newspaper-like accuracy, it can no longer unsettle our expectations through the unusual use of language and concepts.

With this critique in mind, I turn to proxy witness poetry. This under-theorized subgenre likewise engages with suffering, but the speaker here does not actually endure the atrocity; rather, this speaker acts as a witness by proxy, engaging with the suffering of others and speaking on their behalf. Looking closely at such poetry and its conscious concern with the mediations and distance necessarily involved in representing someone else’s pain, it becomes clear, I argue, that there is error in regarding a poetic speaker as an objective witness.

The proxy witness, rather than providing an account of another’s suffering, deals instead with the affect of witnessing; these witnesses illustrate the emotion involved in being concerned for another’s suffering. It is not possible, however, for the witness that claims (or is given) an objective stance to offer an account of his or her emotional engagement; that is, the objective witness is unable to express the subjective experience of compassion. Since I believe compassion to be an essential aspect of witnessing, I want to demonstrate the importance of understanding witnessing as a subjective action.

Compassion is often thought about as the feeling we might have when we put ourselves into another’s shoes; many theoretical and commonsense notions of compassion explain it as the ability to feel what the other is feeling. While imagining what another might be feeling is an important aspect of compassion, I want to suggest that we can never know exactly what another person’s suffering is like for them and, moreover, that this knowledge is not necessary. What matters in compassion is that one attends to another; what we offer in feeling compassion is our willingness to be aware of the signs of another’s suffering, to accept these signs as another’s communication. Proxy witness poetry demonstrates this consideration as the speakers offer their close attention to those that suffer. Rather than an I feel your pain attitude, these witness-speakers offer their own feeling in response to the awareness that the other person is feeling something, beginning from the stance that it is only in this attentive relationship that they can access anything about someone else’s suffering.

The poetry, then, models an affective attention that, I believe, is also the most effective method of reading the poetry; that is, the reader is set up to explicate the verse with the same method of close reading and awareness of emotion that  operates within the poem. Further, the value of this thorough and emotional “reading” extends beyond the realm of literature; I believe that this careful and feeling-full analysis represents the kind of attention one could give another person in the most beneficial kind of relationship.

In thinking about the desire for objectivity in the poetic witness, a desire that cannot be reasonably maintained through a close examination of the poetry itself, I seek to overcome two things: one, the tendency to separate fact from feeling and, two, the superficial thin-spreading of our attentions. When I talk about feelings here, I’m not proposing something touchy-feely, wishy-washy, or otherwise namby-pamby in orientation. Allowing emotion to reside in intellectual rigour and critical thought is essential in fostering a personal and compassionate orientation to other people. Proxy witness poetry, demonstrating and requiring a kind of reading that involves both emotion and sustained consideration, could function as a pedagogical tool in helping us learn to witness the details of another person in his or her own experience of the world, to conscientiously read the signs of another’s suffering, and to attend to the role of our own emotions in this process.

Suggested Readings

Back, Rachel Tzvia. On Ruins & Return: The Buffalo Poems: 1999-2005. Exeter: Shearsman,2007.

Balakian, Peter. June-tree: New and Selected Poems [1974-2000]. New York: Perennial, 2001.

Brand, Dionne. Inventory. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006.

Ossuaries. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2010.

Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Rich, Adrienne. An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991. New York: Norton, 1991.

Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995. New York: Norton, 1995.

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One thought on “The Compassionate Witness: Attending to Suffering through Proxy Witness Poetry

  1. Dale: Yes, I wonder if it is possible to really know “the other” in any case. Can we ever truly walk in another’s shoes, or can we, at best, hope, as you suggest, to be able to acknowledge the pain and suffering of “the other” although we cannot truly know that “other”? I am curious, in this regard, to know if you are suggesting that it is the witnessing of “atrocity” (extreme pain and suffering–afflction perhaps) that draws us up short of fully becoming one with that “other,” or if, rather, it is the uniqueness of each human life that keeps us at a distance, refuses mutual understanding, perhaps in the name of difference?

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