On the Poetry of Witness and Protest by Merna Ann Hecht

Posted Wed, 6/28/2017 - 8:13am by  |  Category: ,

At this turbulent time in our country and globally, many poets feel summoned to write about events that pose grave threats to justice and endanger our common humanity. We turn to poetry in order to find a language that provides witness to those who must cope with terrible injustice—war, forced migration, imprisonment, torture, and human and civil rights abuses.

Even if we have not suffered these conditions ourselves, if they affect us in deeply personal ways, we will be moved to write about them. We may write to witness, to protest, to provoke, or to embrace the possibility of change toward a more just and humane world.

Carolyn Forché is best known for her work as a poet of witness and provocation. She is one of the many poets we’ll read in my upcoming class, The Poetry of Witness and Protest—poets who write to deepen our awareness and compassion as they call attention to the consequences of inhumane acts and violent conflicts.

Her poem “The Boatman,” recently published in Poetry magazine, gives the reader a realistic sense of the anguish of forced migration. Poems like “The Boatman” allow us to understand the power of a persona poem. We read the poem and sense another person’s experience in order to witness their suffering and protest the conditions that cause it.

From “The Boatman”

We were thirty-one souls all, he said, on the gray-sick of sea
in a cold rubber boat, rising and falling in our filth.
By morning this didn’t matter, no land was in sight,
all were soaked to the bone, living and dead.
We could still float, we said, from war to war.
What lay behind us but ruins of stone piled on ruins of stone?
City called “mother of the poor” surrounded by fields
of cotton and millet, city of jewelers and cloak-makers,
with the oldest church in Christendom and the Sword of Allah.
If anyone remains there now, he assures, they would be utterly alone.

“The Boatman” calls on us to enter in to the experience of one man—a refugee himself—who guides a boat of refugees. There is profound loss, a child who drowns, and a sense of aching homelessness. Told with the immediacy of the boatman’s voice, we know more of this terrible crisis of our times.


Merna Ann Hecht founded the Stories of Arrival: Youth Voices Refugee and Immigrant Poetry Project. She teaches Humanities and Creative Writing at UW, Tacoma. Poet, essayist, and award-winning storyteller, her teaching and writing focus on community, art, and social justice.