Study Guide

Charles Simic

Charles Simic Essay - Simic, Charles (Vol. 130)

Simic, Charles (Vol. 130)

Introduction

Charles Simic 1938-

Yugoslavian-born American poet, translator, essayist, nonfiction writer, and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of Simic's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes, 6, 9, 22, 49, and 68.

Simic's work blends surrealist and imagist techniques and employs elements of East European folklore and mysticism as well as American jazz and blues music to explore the horrors of war in his homeland and to imbue commonplace objects with philosophical significance. His perception of the subjective and intuitive natures of language is revealed in works that display a variety of influences, including those of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Yugoslavian poet Vasko Popa, American poets from Walt Whitman to Theodore Roethke, and French surrealists such as André Bréton and Stéphane Mallarmé.

Biographical Information

Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, just before World War II, Simic experienced as a small child the Nazi occupation of his country and later the brutal tactics of Josef Stalin during the Soviet control of Eastern Europe. In 1954 Simic's family immigrated to the United States, where they lived in New York City before settling in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Simic attended the University of Chicago at night while working during the day at the Chicago Sun-Times and graduated from New York University in 1967. He has taught English literature at the University of New Hampshire, State University of California, Boston University, and Columbia University. In 1990 Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his book of prose poems The World Doesn't End (1989).

Major Works

Simic's work is strongly informed by his childhood experiences in Yugoslavia and by continuing violence among ethnic groups in the Balkans. In Dismantling the Silence (1971), which contains selections from his earlier publications What the Grass Says (1967) and Somewhere among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes (1969), Simic elevates ordinary objects to the level of horror by associating them with images of political violence. Particularly throughout the 1990s, Simic has evoked the images of war and its devastating effects on the individual. Many of the poems in Hotel Insomnia (1992) recall the historical ethnic hatred of the Balkans, continuing into the late-twentieth century with the fighting between Serbs and Croatians. Throughout his work, Simic displays an interest in the deeper meanings in ordinary objects; Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk (1974) contains many of these “object poems.” Another of Simic's poetic preoccupations is the complex and contradictory atmosphere of large American cities, especially New York and Chicago. Elements of beauty, horror, violence, and alienation all come together for Simic in the poems in Austerities (1982), Weather Forecast for Utopia and Vicinities (1983), Unending Blues (1986), The World Doesn't End, and The Book of Gods and Devils (1990). In Dime-Store Alchemy (1993) Simic temporarily left writing in the genre of poetry to examine in short poetic prose pieces the collage boxes of contemporary American artist Joseph Cornell, finding in Cornell a kindred spirit of surrealistic symbolism. In A Wedding in Hell (1994) and Walking the Black Cat (1997) Simic returned to writing poetry, most of it with an even more bleak and ironic outlook than his earlier work.

Critical Reception

Critics have widely praised Simic's deliberately simple structure and diction in his poems and his streamlined presentation of difficult subject matter. Some have detected little development in Simic's continued use of the conversational voice and sinister images, particularly in Walking the Black Cat, where many critics found that Simic was relying too much on his reputation and too little on poetic substance. Nevertheless, Simic's ability to explode the details of ordinary life into symbols of philosophical meaning has continued to earn him critical admiration.

Principal Works

What the Grass Says (poems) 1967

Somewhere among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes (poems) 1969

Dismantling the Silence (poems) 1971

White (poems) 1972; revised edition, 1980

Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk (poems) 1974

Charon's Cosmology (poems) 1977

Classic Ballroom Dances (poems) 1980

Austerities (poems) 1982

Weather Forecast for Utopia and Vicinity (poems) 1983

Selected Poems, 1963-1983 (poems) 1985

The Uncertain Certainty: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry (nonfiction) 1985

Unending Blues (poems) 1986

The World Doesn't End (poems) 1989

The Book of Gods and Devils (poem) 1990

Wonderful Words, Silent Truth (essays) 1990

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (nonfiction) 1992

Hotel Insomnia (poems) 1992

The Unemployed Fortune-Teller: Essays and Memoirs (nonfiction) 1994

A Wedding in Hell (poems) 1994

Walking the Black Cat (poems) 1997

Criticism

Hayden Carruth (review date Summer 1971)

SOURCE: “Here Today: A Poetry Chronicle,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Summer, 1971, pp. 320-27.

[In the following review, Carruth uses a poem by Simic to demonstrate what he considers to be wrong with contemporary poetry.]

Pound once wrote: “No good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old, for to write in such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from books, convention and cliché, and not from life. …”

Again: “Poetry is a centaur. The thinking, word-arranging, clarifying faculty must move and leap with the energizing, sentient, musical faculties. It is precisely the difficulty of this amphibious existence that keeps down the census record of good poets.”

Further: “Don't imagine that a thing will ‘go’ in verse just because it's too dull to go in prose.”

Further still: “When you have words of a lament set to the rhythm and tempo of There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town To-night you have either an intentional burlesque or rotten art.”

And then: “Poets who are not interested in music are, or become, bad poets. I would almost say that poets should never be too long out of touch with musicians. … I do not mean that they need become virtuosi. … It is perhaps their value that they can be a little refractory and heretical, for all arts tend to decline into the stereotype; and at all times the mediocre tend or try, semi-consciously or unconsciously, to obscure the fact that the day's fashion is not the immutable.”

Finally, anent the types of verbal clarity: “There is the clarity of the request: Send me four pounds of ten-penny nails. And there is the syntactical simplicity of the request: Buy me the kind of Rembrandt I like. This last is an utter cryptogram. It presupposes a more complex and intimate understanding of the speaker than most of us ever acquire of anyone. It has as many meanings, almost, as there are persons who might speak it. To a stranger it conveys nothing at all.”

I am not sorry to quote Ezra Pound at such length. As far as I have served any master during my thirty years' apprenticeship in poetry, he has played the part, and I have never tired of returning to the best of his critical writing, so pointed and spirited, so deeply instinct with formative energy. Wherever I find it I always enjoy it. So do other readers, I know. But at present I have a separate reason for wishing to buttress myself with Pound's authority, for now I feel obliged, actually impelled against my natural desire, to say something that many people will think heretical and stupid, and in doing so to tread on a few toes. My strategy is to disarm these people by quoting to them from texts which they, too, acknowledge as originative, so that they may listen to me without offense. Yet isn't the truth simply that I think these people have paid scant heed to what Pound actually thought and wrote, and that offense is probably inescapable? So much the more reason to have no taste for it, then. The older I get the less I wish to tread on anyone's toes, certainly not for poetical reasons—politics being another matter. As Pound also remarked, “Beauty is difficult,” damned bloody difficult, and the one aspect of his critical method which I somewhat disparage is his hauteur toward other writers, especially from his own generation, who were working at it as hard as he was. Let me try to do what I must without hauteur.

If what I have suggested is true, namely, that some of Pound's present-day followers accord his teaching more hebetude and neglect than real understanding, this is not the first time. We know what became of Imagism in the years following the first Imagist anthology in 1912: hordes of unfavored vers-librists, mostly Americans, crashed the gate, many under the flowing standard of Amy Lowell, which caused Pound to say that the movement had degenerated into Amygism, and caused both him and his friend Eliot to revert to the corrective traditionalism of Mauberley and the Sweeney and Hippopotamus poems. Pound and Eliot are no longer able to apply the corrective; yet I am certain it is coming from someone, somewhere, somehow, because the condition of poetry today resembles closely the condition of poetry in 1915. The common American poetic style, descended lineally if deviously from what Pound proclaimed in his Imagist manifestoes, has become again so common that it is ridiculous; riddled with triteness, sameness, and dullness. It is being turned out virtually by rote at tens of thousands of writing tables all over North America, and given to us, thrown at us, in poems which are interchangeable, in books whose authors, relentless ego-tripping solipsists though they are, remain as indistinguishable as the obit-writers of the Times. The tricks, metaphors, cadences, topics, vocabularies: they are standard. “Procedures,” as Pound once complained, “are already erected into rules!” We have “syntactical simplicity” by the yard, conveying “nothing at all.” I do not mean that there are no good young poets. There are a fair number, and I have praised them, publicly and privately, whenever I could; there would even be enough to sustain this particular “heave,” as Pound would say, for years to come. The trouble is that in order for the good poets to sustain themselves, at least in the public or cultural sense, they must be able to offer their work clearly, freely, and with a certain distinctiveness and purity. Today the work of our good young poets is in danger of being swamped by the mass of similar but inferior writing. And the danger is heightened by the fact that many of the inferior writers have worked themselves into positions of power, since a sign of flatulence in any particular poetic movement is its concomitant institutionalization within the structures of academic and literary life.

We are accustomed to think of poetry as sustained by its leaders, because this is the case during periods of innovation when we are all caught up in the sociological dynamism of literary processes. But at other times, just as important in terms of art, when matters of principle are abeyant and each of us turns to the exploitation of his personal capacities, then we are all, leaders and followers alike, sustained by the health of poetry-at-large; or, conversely, let down by its weakness.

But my interest now is poetry itself, the lines that lie on the page and sound in the ear, and I hope my interest agrees with Pound's sense of the perennial needs: for craft, for understanding of technique, for honest serious work, and against carelessness and imprecision. Great poetry is another matter. We know little of its origins, and nothing at all of how to predict it. But poetry that can serve us, as farming and artisanship serve us, poetry that does not smudge its standards, poetry that by the very tension of its striving confutes the recurrent social philosophies of expedience and claptrap: this is what we are looking for. I remember a couple of years ago a good friend of mine, who is also one of our most prominent poets, showed me a new poem in manuscript. I read it, and then read aloud the first seven or eight lines, to show that their language was flat and prosaic. “Ah,” was the response, “but you don't understand my prosody.” Whereupon the same passage was reread aloud to me, with exaggerated pauses at the end of each line. “Prosody be damned,” I said. “Prosody alone doesn't make...

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James Atlas (review date February 1975)

SOURCE: “Autobiography of the Present,” in Poetry, Vol. 125, No. 5, February, 1975, pp. 295-99.

[In the following review, Atlas praises Simic's ability to condense great meaning into single images in Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk.]

Charles Simic's second collection [Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk] draws on the practices of Surrealism, but his work owes more to East European poetry, with its emphasis on a condensed, sombre, even ballad-like language. Simic is a native of Yugoslavia, and has translated a number of poets from there, most notably Vasko Popa, with whom he has obvious affinities; his poems possess the same incantatory powers,...

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Richard Jackson (essay date Winter 1980)

SOURCE: “Charles Simic and Mark Strand: The Presence of Absence,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 136-45.

[In the following essay, Jackson discusses Heideggerian meaning in the poetry of Simic and Mark Strand.]

“If Cleopatra's nose changed the course of the world, it was because it entered the world's discourse, for to change it in the long or short term, it was enough, indeed it was necessary, for it to be a speaking nose.” So writes Jacques Lacan in his essay “The Freudian Thing,” incidentally suggesting, for our purposes, something of the surrealistic moods of Charles Simic and Mark Strand, and the absolute priority these...

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Peter Schmidt (essay date Fall 1982)

SOURCE: “White: Charles Simic's Thumbnail Epic,” in Contemporary Literature, Fall, 1982, pp. 528-49.

[In the following essay, Schmidt analyzes White, finding elements that strongly liken the series to the tradition of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson.]

O how joys, dreads, convolutions, human shapes, and all shapes,
spring as from graves around me!
 O phantoms! you cover all the land and all the sea!
O I cannot see in the dimness whether you smile or frown upon me. …

—Whitman, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1867 version)

A chaque être, plusieurs autres vies me semblaient...

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Bruce Bennett (review date 12 March 1983)

SOURCE: “Poems Magical, Poems Mordant,” in Nation, Vol. 236, No. 10, March 12, 1983, pp. 314-15.

[In the following excerpted review, Bennett admires the spareness and clarity of poems that make up Austerities.]

[In Austerities] Charles Simic is a story teller, but his tales are mordant. “Rosalia” begins typically:

An especially forlorn human specimen
Answers a marriage-ad
On a street of compulsory misfortune,
One drizzly November afternoon …

They are set in landscapes—general cityscapes—despoiled by history (“From Tooth Crowned With Gold,” “Punch Minus Judy”), and in a climate almost unremittingly...

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Charles Simic with Sherod Santos (interview date 1984)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Charles Simic,” in Missouri Review, Vol. VII, No. 3, 1984, pp. 59-74.

[In the following interview, Simic discusses influences on his work, his personal experiences in Eastern Europe and the United States, and the act of writing poetry.]

[Santos]: Would you mind talking a little about the conditions in Yugoslavia just before you left?

[Simic]: I had what Jan Kott calls “a typical East European education.” He means, Hitler and Stalin taught us the basics. When I was three years old the Germans bombed Belgrade. The house across the street was hit and destroyed. There was plenty more of that, as everybody knows....

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Kenneth Funsten (review date 16 March 1986)

SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems 1963-1983, in Los Angeles Time Book Review, March 16, 1986, p. 9.

[In the following review, Funsten provides an overview of Selected Poems 1963-1983, finding that Simic's later work is neither as startling nor as evocative as his earlier poems.]

At night some understand what the grass says.
The grass knows a word or two.
 It is not much. It repeats the same word
Again and again, but not too loudly …

The best poems by Charles Simic harbor an enigmatic simplicity, contain an evasive weight to them. Influenced by riddles, parables and nursery rhymes, Simic populates the folk world of his poems with simple...

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Peter Stitt (review date Spring 1987)

SOURCE: “The Whirlpool of Image and Narrative Flow,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XLI, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 200-203.

[In the following review, Stitt traces the evolution of Simic's poetry from dark and terrifying to lighter and gentler in his volume Unending Blues.]

The voice of Charles Simic is surely one of the most distinct in the world of contemporary poetry. He is known for his terrifying Kafkaesque vision, his propensity for speaking in parables, and his use of pointed and surrealistic images. The title of his newest volume, Unending Blues, seems to promise the first two of these characteristics, and the knowing reader assumes the presence of the third....

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Marci Janas (review date Spring 1991)

SOURCE: “The Secret World of Charles Simic,” in Field, No. 44, Spring, 1991, pp. 67-76.

[In the following review, Janas explores the major mythological and philosophical themes in Simic's The Book of Gods and Devils.]

What I see is the paradox. What shall I call it? The sacred and the profane? I like that point where the levels meet … We know what the Egyptians have said: as above, so below. This is the paradox, and I like to draw them close together. …

—Charles Simic, The Uncertain Certainty

Charles Simic follows phenomenology all the way back to its hermeneutic roots in his...

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Steven Cramer (review date January 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems 1963-1983 and The Book of Gods and Devils, in Poetry, Vol. CLIX, No. 4, January, 1992, pp. 227-34.

[In the following review, Cramer examines elements of Simic's poetry throughout his career that effectively distinguish him from other poets of his generation.]

Though often associated with the “new surrealists” of the 1970s—American poets influenced by “deep imagist” elders like Bly, Wright, Merwin, Kinnell et al.—Charles Simic deserves to be distinguished from this group on at least two counts. First, as a native of Yugoslavia, his attachment to riddles, proverbs, magic formulas, and nursery rhymes has a bona...

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Ileana A. Orlich (essay date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: “The Poet on a Roll: Charles Simic's ‘The Tomb of Stéphane Mallarmé,’” in Centennial Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Spring 1992, pp. 413-28.

[In the following essay, Orlich analyzes Simic's connection to the Surrealists, particularly their respective ideas about chance in their writings.]

The poet of the future will overcome the depressing idea of an irreparable divorce of action and dream. He will hold the magnificent fruit of the tree whose roots intertwine, and he will be able to persuade all who taste it that there is nothing bitter about it. Carried by the wave of his time, he will assume for the first time without distress the...

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Edward Hirsch (review date 21 December 1992)

SOURCE: “Joseph Cornell: Naked in Arcadia,” in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVIII, No. 44, December 21, 1992, pp. 130-34.

[In the following excerpted review, Hirsch praises Simic's musings on the artist Joseph Cornell in Dime-Store Alchemy.]

Charles Simic's new work of prose, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, is the most sustained literary response thus far to [Joseph] Cornell's boxes, montages, and films. It is a poet's book: incisive, freewheeling, dramatic—a mixture of evocation and observation, as lucid and shadowy as the imagination it celebrates. Simic wears his learning lightly. “I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other...

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Lisa Zeidner (review date 21 March 1993)

SOURCE: “Empty Beds, Empty Nests, Empty Cities,” in New York Times, March 21, 1993, pp. 14-15.

[In the following review, Zeidner finds Insomniac Hotel occasionally redundant but many of the individual poems “breathtaking.”]

Few contemporary poets have been as influential—or as inimitable—as Charles Simic. For more than 30 years his work has claimed citizenship to its own dreamlike land, an elusive place hard to pinpoint. His poems are like dense medieval towns seen from the air: you get a sharp view, “time only for a glimpse,” before the view clouds up and you're not sure where you are or even when you are, whether awake or asleep. The...

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Tam Lin Neville (review date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: “In a Room Where We Are Absent,” in Hungry Mind Review, Spring, 1993, p. 32.

[In the following review, Neville notes the painful subject matter but eloquent writing in The Horse Has Six Legs, edited and translated by Simic.]

I've always thought it eerie the way a voice from another culture can come through in the English of a good translation. it's as though a ghost had passed through a wall. “Poetry is what is retained in translation,” not what is lost, poet Charles Simic argues. After reading The Horse Has Six Legs, I have to agree with his optimism.

The book begins with “Oral Poetry, Women's Songs,” a group of...

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Philip Miller (essay date Summer 1993)

SOURCE: “Simic's ‘Cabbage’,” in Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 4, Summer, 1993, pp. 257-58.

[In the following essay, Miller analyzes similarities between Simic's poem “Cabbage,” Andrew Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress,” and John Donne's “The Flea.”]

Charles Simic's recent book Gods and Devils, itself a kind of Dantean parody, contains poems that displace a number of other literary myths. One poem, “Cabbage,” for example, comes nicely into focus when we see its subtle parody of two well-known seventeenth-century carpe diem love poems: Andrew Marvell's “To My Coy Mistress” and John Donne's “The Flea.”

The...

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Scott Edward Anderson (review date November-December 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Hotel Insomniac and Dime-Store Alchemy, in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 6, November-December, 1993, p. 12.

[In the following review, Anderson explains how the poems in Hotel Insomniac and the prose observations in Dime-Store Alchemy compliment each other, noting in particular Simic's interest in the meaning and purpose of art.]

“The world is beautiful but not sayable. That's why we need art,” Charles Simic writes in Dime-Store Alchemy. He refers to the artist Joseph Cornell but could have easily been describing his own work and focus. Like Cornell, Simic has been trying to translate the ineffable through his...

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Judith Kitchen (review date Winter 1995)

SOURCE: A review of A Wedding in Hell, in Georgia Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 938-41.

[In the following review, Kitchen discusses Simic's political poetry in A Wedding in Hell.]

[One] way poets have handled … political material is to release it from its historical ties, creating … a kind of imaginative transmutation. Charles Simic's latest book, A Wedding in Hell, does just this. The poems are vintage “Simic”—cool, surprising, an odd mix of images that disturb as often as they satisfy.

Simic, who was born in Yugoslavia, must, like most of us, respond to the nightly images on the television screen as the...

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Christopher Merrill (review date 19 March 1995)

SOURCE: “Moments Frozen in Time,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 19, 1995, p. 8.

[In the following review, Merrill praises Simic's historical sense in A Wedding in Hell and The Unemployed Fortune-Teller.]

Where shall we place our faith, in the individual or in the tribe? For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic the answer is a function of poetry itself: “Lyric poets perpetuate the oldest values on earth,” he reminds us. “They assert the individual's experience against that of the tribe.” Those values, needless to say, are under attack around the world. Religious fundamentalists, ardent nationalists, tribalists of every color and...

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Helen Vendler (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “A World of Foreboding: Charles Simic,” in Soul Says: On Recent Poetry, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp. 102-16.

[In the following essay, Vendler presents an overview of Simic's major themes and techniques.]

Charles Simic's riddling poems, for all that they reproduce many things about his century (its wars, its cities, its eccentrics, and so on) in the end chiefly reproduce the Simic sieve—a sorting machine that selects phenomena that suit Simic's totemic desire. There is no escape hatch in a Simic poem: you enter it and are a prisoner within its uncompromising and irremediable world:

The trembling finger of a woman
Goes down...

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Charles Simic with Molly McQuade (interview date 1995)

SOURCE: “Real America: An Interview with Charles Simic,” in Chicago Review, Vol. 41, Nos. 2-3, 1995, pp. 13-18.

[In the following interview, Simic discusses his high school and college years in Chicago.]

Charles Simic was born in Yugoslavia and came to the U.S. in 1954, when he was sixteen. He went to high school in Oak Park, Illinois, and attended the University of Chicago at night while working by day at the Chicago Sun-Times.

His poetry has been collected in Selected Poems 1963-1983 (Braziller, 1985), The Book of Gods and Devils (Harcourt, 1990), and many other books. His translations include Homage to the Lame Wolf:...

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David Sofield (review date 13 January 1996)

SOURCE: A review of A Wedding in Hell, in America, Vol. 174, No. 1, January 13, 1996, p. 18.

[In the following review, Sofield offers a mixed assessment of A Wedding in Hell.]

In the prose-poem “Voice from the Cage,” God seems to appear as “Mr. Zoo Keeper,” and we animals know that “sorrow, sickness, and fleabites are our lot. The rabbits still screw but their weakness is optimism. … I've dyed my hair green like Baudelaire. … Ours is a circus of quick, terrified glances.” End of poem. In the penultimate poem of a A Wedding in Hell, entitled “Mystery Writer,” God figures as a genre author whose apparent interest is to obscure our...

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David Bafer (review date April 1996)

SOURCE: “On Restraint,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXVIII, No. 1, April, 1996, pp. 33-47.

[In the following review, Bafer compares the works of Ted Kooser to Simic's A Wedding in Hell, finding Simic's poetry taut and evocative.]

I am not concerned here with artistic timidity, moral constraint, or polite decorum—that is, restraint as puritanic virtue—but rather with tactics of restraint which allow us to gauge a poem's opposite pole, its power and passion. Even Walt Whitman is at his most persuasive when his enthusiasms are informed by subdued counter-pressures. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” those ominous, looming “dark patches,” which accompany his...

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Paul Breslin (review date July 1997)

SOURCE: “Four and a Half Books,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXX, No. 4, July, 1997, pp. 226-39.

[In the following review, Breslin asserts that Simic relys on his reputation in Walking the Black Cat rather than breaking new poetic ground.]

The dustjacket blurb for Charles Simic's Walking the Black Cat invites us to a world in which “a man waits at a bus stop for the love of his life, a woman (Lady Luck?) he's never met. The world's greatest ventriloquist who sits on a street corner uses passersby as dummies and speaks through us all. Hamlet's ghost walks the hallways of a Vegas motel.” And more inducements in the same vein. If only they had proved a less...

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