Carolyn Forché


Coiner of the term “poetry of witness,” Carolyn Forché is frequently characterized as a political poet; she calls for poetry to invest in the “social.” Born in 1950 as the oldest of seven children, Forché was raised in Farmington, Michigan. Around the age of nine, her Catholic feminist mother Louise suggested Carolyn should try to entertain herself by writing a poem. Louise pulled out her old college textbook and taught meter and stresses to Carolyn. In 1972, Forché received her BA in international relations from Michigan State University and then, three years later, her MFA at Bowling Green State University. She published her first book of poetry, Gathering the Tribes, in 1975 at age 24; it won the 1975 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Forché received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship after translating the work of Salvadoran-exiled poet Claribel Algería in 1977; the fellowship enabled her to work as a human rights advocate in El Salvador. She has published five books of poetry and the 2019 memoir What You Have Heard Is True. Her work is often described as “devastating” due to its searing honesty and unflinching accounting of travesties. Forché has been given various awards in recognition of her work on behalf of human rights and the preservation of culture and memory. The Lannan Visiting Professor of Poetry and Professor of English at Georgetown University, she currently lives in Maryland.

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.

There is a hotel named for it in Rome two hundred meters

from the Piazza di Spagna, where you can have breakfast under

the portraits of film stars. There the staff cannot do enough for you.

But I am talking nonsense again, as I have since that night

we fetched a child, not ours, from the sea, drifting face-

down in a life vest, its eyes taken by fish or the birds above us.

After that, Aleppo went up in smoke, and Raqqa came under a rain

of leaflets warning everyone to go. Leave, yes, but go where?

We lived through the Americans and Russians, through Americans

again, many nights of death from the clouds, mornings surprised

to be waking from the sleep of death, still unburied and alive

but with no safe place. Leave, yes, we obey the leaflets, but go where?

To the sea to be eaten, to the shores of Europe to be caged?

To camp misery and camp remain here. I ask you then, where?

You tell me you are a poet. If so, our destination is the same.

I find myself now the boatman, driving a taxi at the end of the world.

I will see that you arrive safely, my friend, I will get you there.





Literary Movements:


Anthology Years:




Death & Loss

Poems of Place

Violence & War

Literary Devices:


an expression designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly; an indirect or passing reference


a comparison between two unrelated things through a shared characteristic

Rhetorical Question

a question asked for effect, not necessarily to be answered