Bookseller's Op-Ed: Poems Bear Witness to the World's Horrors

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This column by Lucy Kogler of Talking Leaves Books appeared on the Opinion Page of The Buffalo News on April 29, 2009.

Little did T.S. Eliot know when he wrote the first five words of "The Wasteland" in 1920 -- "April is the cruelest month" -- just how portentous his words were.

April is the month in which poetry is celebrated and genocide memorialized. The six genocides commemorated are: April 6, Bosnia and Herzegovina; April 7, Rwanda; April 17, Cambodia; April 18, present Darfur; April 21, the Holocaust; and April 24, Armenia.

These two occasions would seem to be at odds, but I don't think so. I believe that National Poetry Month is the corollary to Genocide Awareness Month.

National Poetry Month gives us the opportunity to celebrate our ability as humans to use words to explain and glorify our world. Genocide Awareness Month gives us the opportunity to acknowledge our capacity for evil. The desired outcome of focusing our attentions on atrocities is that a global intolerance for further occurrences will be generated.

We are creatures who need to explain and illuminate. We need to give voice to our rage, fear, hope, and joy. We need to share our experiences. Ultimately a poem is a memory, thought, or experience put into words. A poem organizes what is chaotic and terrifying.

A poem tells the story of the disappeared, of the butchered, of the gassed, of the starved.

A poem is an image of something seen by the dead -- hidden in a wall, written on a leaf, memorized and rebirthed by survivors.

A poem is a song heard in ditches, in forests, in tents, in barracks, in transports. Poems bear witness. It is the obligation of not only the witness, survivor, poet, but of the words themselves, to give life to the horror. One need only recognize the pulse of humanity and not the specific author in order for the words to be alive and present. It is our own voice we hear as we read these poems, and by hearing our voice transported to the situation, we make alive our conscience and force awareness.

Carolyn Forche is the editor of an incredible and important anthology of poetry: Against Forgetting. In it are poems from the wars and genocides of the 20th century starting with the Armenian genocide. Reading the political poetry of the 20th and 21st century should be an essential part of everyone's education.

I remember being given a poetry anthology, A Gathering of Poems, as a teenager by one of my friends. I was home from school, sick, and feeling sorry for myself. I opened it and found the poem by a young girl who had been in a concentration camp. I still remember the words and why I wanted to memorize them:

From tomorrow on I will be sad
From tomorrow on
Not today, today I will be glad
And every day no matter how hard it may be I will say
From tomorrow on I will be sad
And not today.

I still use this poem as fortitude when confronted with an intolerable situation. Poetry will always be the most immediate and the most intimate way in for me.

This month at Talking Leaves Books we will be handing out a "Books of Conscience" flyer prepared by [ABA] the independent booksellers association. On Thursday we will be handing out poems for "Poem in Your Pocket Day." As Buffalo's oldest independent bookstore, we take our responsibility to make available the writing that will keep us free from tyranny very seriously. Let's be utterly aware this month, and for longer!

Reprinted with permission of the author.

Lucy Kogler is manager of Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, New York, and vice president of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association. Kogler will be a panelist at the ABA Day of Education session "Independents Week: Creating a Community-Wide Local First Celebration at Any Time of the Year" at next month's BookExpo America.