Simic, Charles (Vol. 130)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
(The entire section is 111 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 3100 words.)
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, the same cunning and story-telling art. Nor is there any falling-off from his first, much-praised volume, Dismantling the Silence, except for an occasional repetition of images; in some ways, this book seems even subtler in its modulations of the poems' voice, as it dispenses its ironic folk wisdom. Simic has ideas about the phenomenal world, and a marvellous capacity for locating the luminous objects which evoke (and invoke) those ideas; he is so close to everything he writes about that he can recover their most hidden properties. A bird is “shaped / like the insides / of a yawning mouth.” the sky “turns cold and lucent / like the water in which / they baptized a small child”; smoke trailing upward resembles “a fisherman,...
(The entire section is 558 words.)
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 two poets give to the ontological function of language. Actually, to headnote a discussion of these two poets by citing a French linguistic psychoanalyst is to follow Simic's advice in a recent essay entitled “Negative Capability and Its Children” (Antaeus, Spring 1978) in which he talks about the “multiple sources,” often conflicting (he uses Hegel and Breton, Nietzsche and Heidegger), that contemporary poets have absorbed: “Their poetics have to do with the nature of perception, with being, with psyche, with time and consciousness. Not to subject oneself to their dialectics and uncertainties is truly not to experience the age we have inherited.” And what best characterizes this various age, from the phenomenologists to...
(The entire section is 3324 words.)
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 dues.
—Rimbaud, Une Saison en Enfer
These are examples of Reason's momentary grasp of the scepter; the exertions of a power which exists not in time or space, but an instantaneous instreaming causing power. The difference between the actual and the ideal force of man is happily figured by the schoolmen, in saying, that the knowledge of man is an evening knowledge, vespertina cognitio, but that of God is a morning knowledge, matutina cognitio.
The number of Charles Simic's readers has been increasing steadily during the last decade, for those who come across his work tend...
(The entire section is 8311 words.)
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 harsh. Scarcity is the rule and practically everyone practices “austerities” of some sort. Even on those rare occasions of abundance, the results are not precisely satisfying:
We ate so well after the funeral In that shack by the town dump; Fingers dripping with barbecue sauce and grease Making the quick sign of the cross In the cramped, smoke-filled living room …
In “Guardian Angel” the poet refers to “these dark, hell-bent days”; in “Dear Isaac Newton” he declares “the maggots romp / In the Sunday roast.” A “born doubter,” he has been vouch-safed few signs, and like other non-believers has no alternative but to look “both ways at the...
(The entire section is 344 words.)
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. When the war ended I came in and said: “Now there won't be any more fun!” That gives you an idea what a jerk I was. The truth is, I did enjoy myself. From the summer of 1944 to mid-1945, I ran around the streets of Belgrade with other half-abandoned kids. You can just imagine the things we saw and the adventures we had. You see, my father was already abroad, my mother was working, the Russians were coming, the Germans were leaving. It was a three-ring circus.
I don't want to sound overly psychological, but there is in your work that peculiar element which blends so naturally horror and fun. Do you think it had its origin in those days?
Very probably. I'm the product of chance, the baby of...
(The entire section is 3850 words.)
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 objects and puzzling omens. His poems have the atmosphere of a Bruegel feast day, without any of the people.
Born in Yugoslavia in 1938, Charles Simic spent his childhood watching Europe turn into rubble. “it's always evening / In an occupied country. / Hour before the curfew. / A small provincial city. / The houses all dark. / The storefronts gutted.”
In 1949, he emigrated to America, eventually working as an editorial assistant at Aperture, a photography magazine.
The fact is significant. For Simic's best poems share a quality with good photographs, the unceasing attention to objects in an effort to see them anew. At his best, it is the intensity of Simic's imagination as it...
(The entire section is 674 words.)
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. These elements are indeed dominant through most of the book, though subtle forces of change seem to be undermining two of them. Before I talk about the changes I see taking place, I would like to look at an example of the kind of poem we expect from Simic, “Dark Farmhouses”:
Windy evening, Chinablue snow The old people are shivering In their kitchens.
Truck without lights Idling on the highway, Is it a driver you require? Wait a bit.
There's coal to load up, A widow's sack of coal.
Is it a shovel you need? Idle on, A shovel will come by and by Over the darkening plain. A shovel, And a spade.
A threatening world is created in the first stanza and deepened...
(The entire section is 1079 words.)
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 marvelous new collection, The Book of Gods and Devils. The Egyptian god alluded to in my epigraph, and identified by Simic in a new book of essays—Wonderful Words, Silent Truth—is Hermes Trismegistos, a.k.a. Thoth. He was really the start of it all for the philosopher Heidegger—a major figure in hermeneutical or interpretative phenomenology—and the poet Simic, who has often expressed a deep and abiding interest in Heideggerian philosophy. It is possible to claim Thoth as a sort of unseen—of course!—charismatic presence in the book.
Simic is continuing the saga of the Chaplinesque—he would say Buster Keatonish—seer in a world as inscrutable as a sacred text. He's working again in the verse and...
(The entire section is 2424 words.)
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 fide regional pedigree, above and beyond the hours he logged studying folklore in the New York Public Library. More important, his memories of growing up in war-torn Belgrade provide an experiential groundwork for the primeval violences in his work. From the earliest poems in his Selected Poems 1963-1983 to 1990's The Book of Gods and Devils, Simic has rarely settled for the Jungian ahistoricity typical of American period surrealism. Instead, Simic's images—pre-industrial and “archetypal” at first, distinctly urban and modern later on—bear the scars of historical witness.
Rereading Dismantling the Silence (1971), I'm struck less by its folkloric evocations of “the old country” than by its...
(The entire section is 2275 words.)
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 task of reception and transmission of signals pressing towards him from the depths of the ages. He will maintain at all cost the common presence of the two terms of human rapport, by whose destruction the most precious conquest would become instantaneously worthless: the objective awareness of realities, and their internal development in what, by virtue of a sentiment partly individual, partly universal, is magical until proved otherwise. This rapport can pass for magical in the sense that it consists of an unconscious, immediate action of the internal upon the external. …
—Andre Breton, “Les vases communicants” in “What is Surrealism?”
… There are poems I...
(The entire section is 6228 words.)
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 on the street,” he begins, and that sentence—that dream—sets the tone for what follows: a personal quest to approach Cornell through the urban milieu, to encounter and exalt his spirit. Simic writes, “Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects which belong together. Once together they'll make a work of art. That's Cornell's premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.”
Dime-Store Alchemy tracks Cornell from a unique angle. Simic—an American poet born in Belgrade and weaned on Surrealism; a writer with an antenna for paradox and a penchant for philosophy; an antic, skeptical visionary (“What a mess!” he has written. “I believe in images...
(The entire section is 2760 words.)
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 dislocation is both spooky and seductive.
Mr. Simic migrated to the United States from Yugoslavia in 1954, and his haunting images have roots in war-torn Europe, where, as a small child, he watched his father being arrested by the Gestapo. In essays, he has described himself as a lonely, frightened boy, sleepless as bombs fell. But there is rarely anything overtly autobiographical in his poems, except the lingering mood of being orphaned by logic and culture: “I spent my childhood on a cross / In a yard full of weeds, / White butterflies, and white chickens.”
In his 11th volume, Hotel Insomnia, Mr. Simic continues to explore the ghost town he has limned in past collections. It is a world of empty...
(The entire section is 478 words.)
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 early folk poems collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I was drawn to the raw, earthy ones.
The sky is strewn with stars And the wide meadow with sheep. The sheep have no shepherd Except for crazy Radoye And he has fallen asleep. His sister Janja wakes him: Get up, crazy Radoye, Your sheep have wandered off. Let them, sister, let them. The witches have feasted on me, Mother carved my heart out, Our aunt held the torch for her.
Another short song ushers out a common, unwanted guest of peasant houses:
There smoke, sooty smoke, There is your door, And fried egg. And bread and butter, And your grandpa's bones With which to prick yourself.
The “Women's Songs” show...
(The entire section is 1763 words.)
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 “mistress” of Simic's poem is about to “chop the head” of cabbage “in half,” just as the mistress in Donne's poem prepares to kill a flea. The cabbage is Simic's emblem for love, like Donne's conceit, but also brings to mind the “vegetable love” of Marvell's poem. Simic's narrator makes “her reconsider” just as Donne “stays” his mistress's hand, temporarily. Simic's poem reduces the rhetorical seduction, so elaborate in both Donne and Marvell, to only one line: “‘Cabbage symbolizes mysterious love.’” Simic's line, however, is still “a line,” and appropriately cavalier in its formal and hyperbolic tone and in its allusion to Charles Fourier, not exactly a cavalier lover, but a late-eighteenth-century French...
(The entire section is 408 words.)
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 own inimitable language since Dismantling the Silence (Braziller, 1971) was published. Critics have often tried, without much success, to define the elusive, beguiling, and seductive quality of his poetry, and have used vague generalizations: “a Central European sensibility,” an “accent” laced with “garlic and a readier good will,” “the dreamy, unexpected metaphors of a foreigner.” His work remains, after a dozen books, provocative, impossible to pigeonhole, and often difficult to decipher.
It is not surprising that Cornell's work and example have had such a profound effect in shaping Simic's own art, for his poetry often resembles a Cornell box: found images and objects, fragments, inscriptions,...
(The entire section is 803 words.)
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 people of the former republic wage a multifaceted civil war. But his poems have not been written for this context; instead, they seem to aspire to timelessness by displaying a distanced universality reminiscent of the poetry of Vasco Popa or Jean Follain.
Simic's poems are never locked in the past, but take place in the present tense of the lyric. They transcend chronology, eschewing even imagery that would date them, reaching for eternity. This is true for most of his work, but in A Wedding in Hell there is an emphasized dislocation, as though the poems were trying to bridge the gaps between languages—and, in many ways, they are. Simic fuses the multiple connotations of his words by wedding dissimilar images....
(The entire section is 1014 words.)
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 moral suasion—all seek to diminish the worth of individual experience. Born in solitude, the poem celebrates freedom, the ideologue's enemy; hence the sad history of poets in exile—or worse. As the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, a victim of Stalin's gulags, wrote of Dante: “To speak means to be forever on the road.”
This knowledge is what makes the simultaneous publication of Simic's 12th volume of poetry, A Wedding in Hell, and third book of prose, The Unemployed Fortune-Teller, such an important literary event. His ars poetica—“trying to make your jailers laugh”—is wise as well as funny: his is an essay in liberation. And never has he been more successful at unsettling a reader's...
(The entire section is 1219 words.)
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 the list of casualties On the evening of the first snow.
The house is cold and the list is long.
All our names are included.
This short poem, entitled “War,” from the collection Hotel Insomnia (1992), exhibits all the hallmarks of the Simic style: an apparently speakerless scene; an indefinite article establishing the vagueness of place and time—“a woman” somewhere, anywhere, on a wintry evening; then a menacing definite article focusing our gaze, in this instance on “the” list; then a late entrance of the personal pronoun engaging the speaker's life and ours. This coercive poem of war excludes everything else that might be going on in “real” wartime (people eating,...
(The entire section is 4581 words.)
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: Selected Poemsby Vasko Popa (Field, 1979), Roll Call of Mirrors by Ivan Lalić; (Wesleyan University Press, 1987), and Selected Poems of Tomaz Salamun (Ecco Press, 1987). Simic's essays have been published in The Uncertain Certainty (University of Michigan Press, 1985) and Wonderful Words, Silent Truth(Michigan, 1990). He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990.
I interviewed Simic about his education in general and about his Chicago experiences in particular. As a recent immigrant, Simic had an experience at the university which was less than typical. That was what he chose to emphasize, modestly but heartily. In what follows, I've edited the transcript of our interview so that it...
(The entire section is 2610 words.)
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 understanding of urban life. And this poem begins with the deceptively easy “I figured, well, since I can't sleep / I'll go for a walk.”
Occasionally a whole short poem will speak in a welcomely guileless voice, the guilelessness in the end serving to make us face How Awful It Is. “The World,” in the poem so named, chooses to “torture me / Every day” with its “many cruel instruments,” the torture today being two pictures of a woman and a child, first fleeing and then:
fallen With bloodied heads On that same winding road With its cloudless sky Of late summer And its trees shivering In the first cool breeze On days when we put all Our trust into the world Only to be deceived.
(The entire section is 610 words.)
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 confessions of secular guilt, temper his later transcendental encouragements to “flow on … with the flood-tide.” The poem's polar forces—obliteration and regeneration, liability and acceptance—hold themselves in a kind of checks-and-balance. The result is precarious and powerful. Other poets use different methods of restraint: Dickinson with her severe, compact technique (“After great pain, a formal feeling comes—”); Bishop in her very stance, what Jeredith Merrin calls an “enabling humility.” Restraint can ironize, enable, even sustain, a poet's great passions and wildness.
Ted Kooser is the most restrained of the five poets I consider here, if restraint also nominates characteristics like compression and...
(The entire section is 1677 words.)
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 accurate harbinger of the poems themselves—which too often have the contrived goofiness, with portentous hints of significance for “us all,” that the blurbist promises. The best ones won't submit to their own glibness altogether, but on the whole I have the sense of a style running on automatic pilot, the urgencies that once called it into existence largely forgotten. Strange events do not erupt, but saunter lazily into view, voiced in such inert syntax and blasé affect as to seem oddly comfortable. Instead of a Borgesian dream tiger, Simic offers the leashed housecat of his title, which is, to judge by its gait, fat, sleepy, and a little bit spoiled.
As an instance of this volume's stylistic lassitude, consider the...
(The entire section is 735 words.)
Ford, Mark. “The Muse as Cook.” Times Literary Supplement, No. 4814 (7 July 1995): 15.
Review of The Unemployed Fortune-Teller and Frightening Toys that examines Simic's ideas about poetry.
Jackson, Richard. “Charles Simic's Mythologies.” In The Dismantling of Time in Contemporary Poetry, pp. 240-79. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1988.
Examines Simic's sense of mythic time.
Nash, Susan Smith. A review of Walking the Black Cat. World Literature Today 71, No. 4 (Autumn 1997): 793-94.
Praises Walking the Black Catas a coherent and unified presentation of Simic's major themes.
Simic, Charles. “Composition.” New Literary History IX, No. 1 (Autumn 1977): 149-51.
Brief essay in which Simic describes his poetics of composition.
Additional coverage of Simic's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 12, 33, 52, 61; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 105; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2.
(The entire section is 151 words.)