Charles Simic

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Charles Simic (SEEM-ihch) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Naturalized as an American citizen in 1971, Simic was born in Belgrade, then located in Yugoslavia. With black humor he recalls his childhood during World War II, marked by bombings and waves of advancing and retreating soldiers, as “a three-ring circus.” He describes how, from the summer of 1944 to mid-1945, he “ran around the streets of Belgrade with other half-abandoned kids.” Critics have speculated that the peculiar blend of horror and whimsy in Simic’s work can be traced to those days. Simic admits to still being “haunted by images” of the war.

In 1949 Simic and his mother moved to Chicago to join his father, an engineer who had found employment there with the telephone company for which he had worked in Yugoslavia. His father took him to hear jazz, which Simic credits with making him “both an American and a poet.”

Beginning in 1957, Simic attended the University of Chicago at night and worked during the day as a proofreader at the Chicago Sun Times. He eventually transferred to New York University, from which he received a B.A. in 1967. From 1966 to 1969 Simic, who initially studied to be an artist, worked as an editorial assistant for Aperture, a photography magazine. He began teaching at California State College, Hayward, in 1970. He left that position in 1973, when he was hired as an associate professor of English at the University of New Hampshire.

While a student at the University of Chicago, Simic had audited a poetry workshop taught by John Logan. Logan’s workshops and seminars were associated with Surrealist experimentation, and many of Simic’s early poems appeared in the magazine kayak, an organ for American Surrealist verse. The impulse of Surrealism, which appealed to poets coming of age during and after the unleashing of tribalism’s dark side in World War II, was to draw on an archetypal voice inside oneself that transcended national borders. The influence of Surrealism has been noted by critics in the visionary and dreamlike structure of Simic’s poems.

The concentrated effort of attention on an object in Simic’s early verse more specifically links him to a group of American poets known as the Deep Imagists, which included Robert Bly and W. S. Merwin. From Simic’s first published collection, What the Grass Says, to his second, Somewhere Among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes, critic Victor Contoski finds the poet receding in the poems, becoming “more absorbed in objects.” Silence becomes a means of communication, as in it the poet hears the “tiny voices of things.” In Simic’s next collection, Dismantling the Silence, Simic offers instruction for deconstructing silence in order to discover its nature. In the three-part White the narrative voice perceptively shifts to that of the object, here, the color white. White has been read by critics as a deliberate dispossession, freeing the poet to re-create himself. Subsequent poetry finds Simic exploring the self, though less as a subject than as a verb—that is, the self in action and in flux.

Critic Peter Schmidt, noting references to Walt Whitman’s poetry throughout White, sees in it Simic confronting his American poetic origins. Simic claims that, because all his serious reading had been in English and American literature when he started writing poetry in high school, he has never been capable of writing a poem in Serbian, his native language. Nevertheless, critics invariably characterize his work as European in its mordant playfulness and primitive, folkloric elements. Simic has been a prolific English-language translator of Serbian poets, including Vasko Popa, Ivan Lalic, and Aleksandar Ristovic. In both 1970 and 1980 Simic received the translation award given by the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN).

The Third Balkan War echoes in much of Simic’s work starting in the 1990’s. In an essay first published in The New Republic, the father of two unflinchingly condemned his fellow Serbs for their aggression. “Lyric poets,” he has said, “assert the individual’s experience against that of the tribe.”

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