Charles Simic (b. 1938) is a great American poet whose influences are easily traced to his European upbringing in the midst of the upheaval during and just after World War II. Simic’s poetry richly draws on the bewildering despair and disorientation of those early experiences, retold in the modern vernacular with hidden treasures to be mined by the careful reader. “I’m sort of the product of history; Hitler and Stalin were my travel agents,” he said in a recent interview. “If they weren’t around, I probably would have stayed on the same street where I was born. My family, like millions of others, had to pack up and go, so that has always interested me tremendously: human tragedy and human vileness and stupidity.”
Simic, born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, immigrated to the United States in 1954 at the age of 16. He grew up in Chicago, received his BA from NYU, and is a professor emeritus of American literature and creative writing at the University of New Hampshire. In many ways a self-made man, Simic, found a voice in the 1970’s in minimalist poetry which inferred deeper meaning from ordinary experience. Simic held a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant from 1984 to 1989, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990, and succeeded Donald Hall as the 15th U.S. Poet Laureate, in August, 2007.
Simic’s poetry once received some criticism as being too obtuse, his poems likened to “tightly constructed Chinese puzzle boxes.” However, this opaque quality to his poetry is now almost universally seen as a prominent attribute of his genius. Indeed, Simic himself did not deny the deeper side to his poetry, saying, “Words make love on the page like flies in the summer heat and the poet is only the bemused spectator.”
James Billington of the Library of Congress, on the occasion of announcing Simic’s laureate, said he admired the poet because his poems were “both accessible and deep… the lines are memorable.” Billy Collins has remarked that he often reads a spate of Charles Simic to get him into a mood for writing. It's helpful to read Simic out loud. He doesn't use fancy language or big words, but the images he builds are lasting. You can easily log on to a website and with one click hear him recite some of his poetry: Simic Readings. The following is a striking ending to a poem you can find at this site describing some interesting qualities of a fork:
Fork (last stanza)
As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald beakless, and blind.
Here’s an excerpt from a poem entitled “My Turn to Confess,” from Simic’s 2005 book, “My Noiseless Entourage (Harcourt). In it one captures the ineffable task of writing poetry, couched in an illusory metaphor of a dog trying to explain why he barks.
A dog trying to write a poem on why he barks,
That’s me, dear reader!
They were about to kick me out of the library
But I warned them,
My master is invisible and all-powerful.
Still, they kept dragging me out by my tail.
One of my favorite Simic poems is Paradise Motel, a haunting commentary on war, undoubtedly rehearsed from memories of his childhood years, but set in the freakish veil of having to view it through the voyeuristic eyes of the television screen.
Paradise Motel (first stanza)
Millions were dead; everybody was innocent.
I stayed in my room. The President
Spoke of war as of a magic love potion.
My eyes were opened in astonishment.
In a mirror my face appeared to me
Like a twice-canceled postage stamp.
Another classic Simic poem is Hotel Insomnia, a telling of an incident that so many of us can instantly relate to, but spoken with such fine language and imagery, that the mental picture captured is one that sticks around for some time. It’s the kind of poem you always want to go back to, if only for it’s powerful visual representation. However, don’t be fooled by the brilliant images. Below the surface is a chilling, powerful and emotionally provocative poem. Here is the closing stanza:
At 5 A.M. the sound of bare feet upstairs.
The "Gypsy" fortuneteller,
Whose storefront is on the corner,
Going to pee after a night of love.
Once, too, the sound of a child sobbing.
So near it was, I thought
For a moment, I was sobbing myself.
The Supreme Moment is an astonishing poem with a curtailed, blunt, and some might say, anticlimactic ending. But I love this poem that speaks of the moment before annihilation, the boot acting and reacting in its own consciousness and consequence, a pervasive metaphor for human action (or apathy); the quaking ant, powerless and futile in its hope, has only a moment to see its frail life pass before itself, in the reflection (quite literally) from a boot. Here is the opening stanza..
As an ant is powerless
Against a raised boot,
And only has an instant
To have a bright idea or two.
The black boot so polished,
He can see himselfReflected in it, distorted,
Perhaps made largerInto a huge monster ant
Shaking his arms and legs
Of all Charles Simic’s poems, the one that has sticks with me the longest is a wry personification of death, entitled Eyes Fastened With Pins. Perhaps no other personification runs the risk of tiring out its own metaphor than that of death, but Simic succeeds where others have failed in the plain speech of the poem, and the detached viewpoint presented. The poem opens,
How much death works,
No one knows what a long
Day he puts in. The little
Wife always alone
Ironing death's laundry.
We’re quickly drawn into the nine-to-five of Death, watching him roam through the town looking for “someone with a bad cough” and finding him bewildered, with the wrong address and even “death can’t figure it out.” The poem ends in a tour de’force of human identification, to say nothing of drop-dead humor (pun intended):
Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked
On death's side of the bed.
Charles Simic is currently co-Poetry Editor of the Paris Review. He received the Wallace Stevens Award in 2007 from the Academy of American Poets. Below is a bibliography of his published books of poetry.
Bibliography of Simic's Published Poetry Books
What the Grass Says - 1967
Somewhere Among Us A Stone Is Taking Notes - 1969
Dismantling The Silence - 1971
White - 1972
Return To A Place Lit By A Glass Of Milk - 1974
Charon's Cosmology - 1977
School For Dark Thoughts - 1978
Classic Ballroom Dances - 1980
Austerities - 1982
Unending Blues - 1986
The World Doesn't End: Prose Poems - 1990 (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry)
Hotel Insomnia - 1992
Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell - 1993
A Wedding in Hell - 1994
Walking the Black Cat - 1996 (National Book Award in Poetry finalist)
Jackstraws - 1999 (New York Times Notable Book of the Year)
The Book of Gods and Devils - 2000
Night Picnic: Poems - 2001
The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected Late and New Poems - 2003
Selected Poems: 1963-2003 - 2004 (winner of the 2005 International Griffin Poetry Prize)
My Noiseless Entourage : Poems - 2005
Monkey Around - 2006