This article examines the relationship between poetry and testimony in order to outline a viable framework for interpreting testimonial poetry (or “poetry of witness,” in Carolyn Forché’s terms) as a literary genre in its own right. Neglected in favor of other, mimetically oriented modes of witnessing, especially those in narrative fiction and documentary prose, testimonial poetry has not been extensively studied, and when it has, the studies were often based on inadequate notions of testimony that fail to recognize witnessing as a broader social and linguistic practice. Relying on the sociological approach to eyewitness testimony developed by Renaud Dulong (notably in Le témoin oculaire [1998]), this article proposes a new understanding of poetic testimony, based neither on an overly broad notion of witnessing as living through an event or era, nor on a narrow understanding of witnessing as providing a faithful documentary account of a personal experience. Much like its prose counterpart, poetic testimony enacts a quasi‐contractual relationship between authors and readers, whereby the former are committed to telling the truth about a directly experienced event of public importance and the latter, in return, are committed to considering seriously their words, approaching them in good faith. This relationship is driven by an underlying ethical imperative whereby the author acts as a moral witness in Avishai Margalit's sense of the term, and the readers assume the role of a moral community sympathetic to their plight. By referencing examples from American, Hungarian, Russian, French, Polish, and South Slavic twentieth‐century poetry, the article shows how a “testimonial” reading of a poem, often very strongly favored on intuitive grounds, modifies generic expectations based on traditional poetic genres and explores its interpretative and ethical implications.

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