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.