When Carolyn Forché used the term “poetry of witness” in her introduction to a 1993 anthology, Against Forgetting, she was the first. By then, she’d spent time in the years from 1978 to 1980 in El Salvador, where she had witnessed violence at the hands of the country’s U.S.-backed military dictatorship. Those first-hand experiences became central to her work: She wasn’t a savior or a revolutionary, but by sharing what she had seen, she could translate some measure of truth to the world.
In “Letter From Prague 1968-1978,” Forché takes a different approach to witnessing: She imagines what she has not lived. The poem is written from the perspective of a 28-year-old Czech person who has been imprisoned for 10 years in the wake of the Soviet invasion. This kind of invention might seem like a departure for Forché, but it’s in line with her conviction that social context matters: “We do not live after atrocity or trauma but in the aftermath of all that happened.” Poets, in other words, don’t exist in a vacuum—they are of this world, and they can’t turn away from its past or its present.