Sophie Johnston is our Periodicals Librarian and Project Cataloguer. Here she reflects on the role poetry has had in helping people deal with trauma, past and present.    

Since 21 March 1999, UNESCO has encouraged people across the world to engage with poetry on World Poetry Day. Their aims are to promote the reading, writing, and teaching of poetry, believing that poems encourage dialogue and can be a catalyst for peace.

Within the Library’s collections, we hold significant collections of poetry, both published and unpublished. If you type the word ‘poetry’ into the keyword search field in the Library’s online catalogue, you will get 782 results that span a broad spectrum of the topic. Poetry, along with other art forms, has helped some survivors of and witnesses to genocide cope with trauma. It is a powerful tool for healing and remembrance. For World Poetry Day we are highlighting some of the relevant material in our collections.

These processes are crucial for laying ghosts to rest, distancing oneself from haunting revenants, renewing an interest in life.

Dominick LaCapra

In his book Writing History, Writing Trauma, Dominick LaCapra discusses the importance of testimony for victims when working through trauma, and how it can help to relieve symptoms of PTSD. He argues that the nature of these symptoms lies in the lack of control a traumatised person has over how and when they are reminded of their trauma, and therefore the lack of control over when they relive traumatic memories. Testimonies, of which poetic expression could be included, can sometimes help those dealing with traumatic memories to choose how and when to relieve these. This provides them with a process to start to gain a critical distance and perspective on events, thereby beginning the process of recovery.   

Poetry has also proved helpful to those during traumatic or extreme events. Many prisoners in Nazi camps wrote poetry to alleviate the pain and suffering they endured. It was also felt important to bear witness to the events and aid future remembrance. Dorothea Heiser notes in her introduction to My Shadow in Dachau, prisoners in Dachau, as in other concentration camps, had no right to personal belongings such as paper and pencils. To keep records such as diaries or poems could be dangerous if found by guards. This shows what an act of resistance it was for prisoners to write anything down, especially something they planned to keep hold of. However, she quotes former prisoners who say it was worth the risk as poetry was a way for them to lift each other’s spirits, get to know each other, and share experiences.

Consider for a moment how wealthy my life is, how little I seek revenge, there being no anger in my heart; the world will be rebuilt and where the new walls start my song, which is now banned, will be heard again, my voice.

Miklós Radnóti – Neither Memory, Nor Magic

During the Second World War, Miklós Radnóti, a Hungarian poet, spent years in a forced labour camp in German-occupied Serbia. Radnóti was executed by firing squad on a death march in November 1944.

He was buried in a mass grave and when exhumed a year later, his body was identified by a notebook of poems in his coat pocket. A copy of a page of which was translated and shown in the Library’s recent Death Marches: Evidence and Memory exhibition. Radnóti was an established poet before his death and so understood and diverse meanings the importance of poetry. 

Miklós Radnóti, photographed in 1930. Public Domain.
Miklós Radnóti, photographed in 1930. Public Domain.

Siamanto, the pen name of Adom Yarjanian, was an Armenian poet who was executed by Turkish authorities during the 1915 genocide. He too was an established poet in his lifetime and the Library holds a collection of his poems titled Bloody News From My Friend. They were inspired by letters he received from his friend Diran Balakian, a doctor who aided fleeing Armenian refugees from Turkish massacres in 1909. He understood that poetry could help give a voice to victims and ensure their history was not lost. These poems are full of graphic details of violence and dark imagery. It is sometimes necessary to elicit horror in a reader if it can provoke an empathetic response.

Even though my hand shakes like a dead branch, I want to testify about what’s happening to our orphaned race.

Siamento – The Cross           

In her book Empathy in Contemporary Poetry After Crisis, Anna Veprinska discusses the potential limitations of empathy. She discusses the work of Charlotte Delbo, a French resistance fighter and survivor of both Auschwitz and Ravensbrück, at length. Delbo wrote a trilogy of memoirs to portray her experiences and used various forms of written expression, including poetry. Despite these attempts to encourage others to engage with the horrors she experienced, she does not think they can ever understand. When talking about her second husband, who did not share her experiences, Delbo writes ‘I never wonder whether he understands, because I know he doesn’t’.         

My heart dried up from love and pain, from pain and love, day in day out, it withered slain.

Charlotte Delbo – Auschwtiz and After
Charlotte Delbo
Charlotte Delbo, a French resistance fighter, was deported to Auschwitz in January 1943. Courtesy Auschwitz Exhibition.

Many scholars argue that as memories are passed on through generations, so is trauma. Children and grandchildren of genocide victims and survivors referred to as the second and third generation, also seek to understand trauma and aid remembrance through poetry. Ruth Mandel, the daughter, and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors wrote a book of poetry titled How to Tell Your Children About the Holocaust. Her poems range in length and subject but many include questions. She is clearly searching for a way to understand what could be argued as incomprehensible. Within this book, there are six poems titled ‘Questionnaire’ which then have subtitles relating to who the poetic voice is addressing. One is addressed to adult Holocaust survivors, one to their spouses, another to their children, and another to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They all follow the format of a series of questions, one after another with no punctuation as if to emphasise the urgency of needing the answers and the overwhelming amount of questions that need asking.  

The holocaust dared to end time. The future barely squeaked by, carried secret in the torn pockets of survivors. We, the children, are born pregnant, the dead lodged inside, like shrapnel.

Ruth Mandel – The Future
Three women and a young child photographed
‘Four Generations’. Courtesy Alan Whitehorn

Alan Whitehorn, whose grandmother survived the Armenian genocide, wrote a book of poetry titled Just Poems: Reflections on the Armenian Genocide. As with Mandel’s book, many of these poems contain questions and in general seem to be seeking answers. The topic of denial of the genocide by Turkish authorities is another common theme, as there has been no formal acknowledgment, let alone apology, for the atrocities committed. As a third-generation, Whitehorn is contributing to the remembrance of his murdered family, as well as all other genocide victims and survivors. In May 2021, Alan Whitehorn wrote a blog for the Library, Remembering Metzmama, in memory of his grandmother.

We need to think about the unthinkable: that the ability to annihilate is far greater today. We must not give up. We can’t afford to give up. Don’t ever give up.

Alan Whitehorn – A Powerful Poem

This is just a brief overview of our collection of material relating to poetry and we are continuing, as in all areas of our collections, to grow it. We hold a collection of personal papers from the poet Gerda Mayer, a child refugee who arrived in England from Czechoslovakia, via the Kindertransport. Our Senior Archivist, Howard Falksohn, has recently arranged for some letters written between her and her mother to join her collection at the Library so that the general public can continue to learn from hers and similar experiences for generations to come.      

Suggested further reading

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Armenian; Genocide; Personal narratives; Poetry; Trauma; Holocaust poetry; Second/Third generation.