Poet Charles Simic writes: "The devils inside us are poets; and so, luckily, are the angels." Over the decades, he has exemplified both – and few can resist the combination. Simic’s bevy of artistic distinction includes the Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, as well as awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among his 60 volumes, two were chosen as National Book Awards finalists. His work has been called surrealist, modernist, even "sheer anarchy."
"Multifaceted" does not even begin to describe the versatility of this poet/essayist/memoirist/translator/professor and survivor of World War II brutalities. Although known as a "poet of the streets," Simic has been, for 30-some years, a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. He will read at Bunn Library at the Lawrenceville School, on Tuesday, February 14.
When I ask poet and Princeton University professor Paul Muldoon to comment on Simic’s resonance, he answers with surprise, as though it should be known: "Why, he is one of the great American poets of our era. I first involved myself with Simic’s work in the mid-1980s, when I came over here (from Ireland). I’ve read him religiously ever since."
It is not wise to label the protean Charles Simic – especially not in interviews, where he is known for acerbic retorts. However, in our recent conversation, his charm and warmth prevailed. This prolific poet has even written gastronomic essays for Food and Wine Magazine. Asked what remains paramount, Simic’s urgent response is: "The poetry.
You know, in the beginning, I just picked it up. How that happened is a mystery. In Chicago, I had friends who wrote poems. That made them successful with the girls." I say, "But you chose poetry," and he replies: "I didn’t! It just started, and I continued. At first, I was surprised at how lousy it was. Then, you know, you read, you buy a few poetry books. And little by little, you get hooked."
The young Yugoslavian immigrant worked for the Chicago Sun-Times by day and studied at the University of Chicago by night. Painting preoccupied him until poetry took over. Unlike the fate of his hero, Pablo Neruda, I learn in the interview that neither of Simic’s parents protested their son’s new direction. "My mother just thought I’d get into trouble," he says. His mother was a singing teacher, with a specialty in opera. His parents met as music teacher and pupil. Simic says, however, that his mother said his father "was not serious." His
father became an engineer in Belgrade in the 1930s, beginning with a Western Electric subsidiary. Even before World War II, the older Simic provided telephone lines between Yugoslavian towns.
Fleeing arrest and war, Simic’s father had to leave his family to fend for themselves, first in Belgrade, then Paris. It would be 10 years before they were reunited in the United States. "He was working here for the same company, until 1958 or so," Simic says. "Then Dad worked for Dresser, a company that made oil digging tools." His father’s influences, however, had nothing to do with phone lines and everything to do with long midnight walks on city streets – in Chicago, in Manhattan. Through his father, Simic was initiated into the world of
smoky nightclubs, new jazz, drinking, outrageous characters, and tall tales. Both men intensively embraced everything American, language above all. The accents would take a little longer.
Simic’s strong early work is renowned for focusing on simple, concrete objects. "Dismantling the Silence" (1971) fulfills the promise of its table of contents, bearing titles challenging in their simplicity: Spider, Hunger, the Animals, Butcher Shop, Bones, Meat, the Spoon, Fork, Knife, My Shoes, and Stone. These gems wrap themselves, fore and aft, in the silence that Simic both deplores and requires. Stringing disparate images together, Simic takes readers on essential,
A favorite of poetry’s teachers, "Stone" may be his most catalytic poem: "Go inside a stone," the poem commands, "That would be my way." Deftly, even merrily, he leads the reader from "So perhaps it is not dark inside after all" to the possibility of "strange writing, star charts on the inner walls." For this one poem alone, it is worth getting to know Charles Simic.
Betty Lies, Eloise Bruce, and Lois Harrod, members of Cool Women Poets in Princeton, treasure Simic in the classroom. Lies says that in writing exercises, she uses his work "over and over, especially ‘Stone’ – there’s a whole world in ‘Stone’!" Harrod says that Simic triggers new freedoms in students. She relishes "his wonderful crazy ideas, that snotty individualism. He’s so confrontational – really very funny." New Jersey prize-winning poet Cat Doty enthuses about
Simic: "He’s just wonderfully weird. Amazing, the way he torques the language. I keep forgetting that this is not his first!" (Actually, it’s Simic’s third, after Serbian and French.)
Professing to hate biography, Simic runs the film noir of his bomb-blasted Belgrade childhood through most stanzas and sentences. As I interview him, I suggest, "If we made a movie of your life, what would it be?" A poet’s pause is followed by stream of consciousness: "Black and white, grainy. It would open with cities, bombs, kids playing in ruins. It would be poorly lit and often interrupted." Asked if his film might convey the mood of "The Last Picture Show," he quickly agrees.
"In those days, you could walk in in the middle of films," Simic says. "I’d be sitting there trying to figure out `Who? What? Who is connected to whom? Why are these people upset?’ Watching from the middle is not that different from life – plunged into the plot. It’s more fun from the middle. When I stayed for the second show, it was much less interesting than the story I had imagined."
Simic writes of his gratitude to poetry for "succeeding in conveying the pain of individuals caught in the wheels of history. I was one of bombed and fleeing humanity [with] a small nonspeaking part in a bloody epic." For Simic, ever since, the world remains an Orphan Factory, the title of one of his 60 books. University of Michigan Press publishes his stirring collections of memoirs and essays; Harcourt, the poems.
As Simic writes of poet Mark Strand, everyone is "an inward exile." Simic endured those boyhood flights from Nazis, Russians, border guards, explosions, ruins old and new. Everything was always too real, yet baffling. On his ceaseless rambles, Simic forces readers to face incomprehensibility, totemizing the unexpected. What we find between his covers is madness in sanity’s guise, or vice versa.
When I ask him if randomness was the key factor in those boyhood bombings, I am corrected: "All bombing is random. Civilians are always slaughtered – that’s part of reality." Nevertheless, the senselessness of that war-blasted childhood fuels his street-searches for images, which Simic then "collages" into new order.
The poet’s job, of course, is to mirror reality. Usually photographed behind dark glasses, it can seem as if Simic cannot get them off. But this poet’s views are his experience. He rarely names his monsters, or even his eras. Politics is never far from those lonely, insomnia-wracked rooms. He unsparingly regarded the 20th century, and now confronts the 21st. "After what we have been through, the wildest lies seem possible." He writes that we live in a "frenzy of idleness
and stupidity" and "surrounded by cowards and dunces."
Simic essays can suddenly approach the romantic, revealing a yearning "to write a poem about an intelligent pencil in love with music." Glimpses of the erotic vie with the man’s passion for ethnic foods. In his critical essays, we learn of his dream to create "an alchemical wedding;" his goal, to "surprise us with poetry."
Charles Simic, Tuesday, February 14, 7 p.m., Lawrenceville School, the McGraw Reading Room, Bunn Library, Lawrenceville. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic reads from his work. He has published more than 60 books. His recent publications include his memoir, "A Fly in the Soup" and "Night Picnic." Free. 609-896-0400.
Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger’s tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.
From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
Even though a child throws it in a river; The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind
a hill –
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.
– Charles Simic