Charles Simic Simic, Charles (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Simic 1938–

Yugoslavian-born American poet and translator.

The common objects Simic chooses as the subjects of his poetry are imbued with a strangeness, a surrealism, revealing the influence of the folk poetry of his native Yugoslavia. His poetic style is one of austere simplicity.

(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

Michael Benedikt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Simic's first book, What the Grass Says, has a kind of rock-bottomed simplicity, a simplicity that is spiritual enough to qualify, I think, as a unique clarity of heart. Most of Simic's poems are about looking at small, modest things and seeing the sense in which they are, indeed, compounded of the stuff of poetry….

The completeness of Simic's commitment to inwardness [evident, for example, in his poem Stone] strikes me as very impressive. Subjects seem chosen for unpromisingness, according to the usual terms of both poetry and Life On Earth. There are poems about waking up, rivers, the poet's own hand,… extinct species, a roach, etc. Yet these simple subjects are always falling open, to reveal other trapdoors to other worlds. It is almost as if Simic were setting up as clear a horizontal area as possible, preparatory to his leap into vertical, lyrical space. The poems often have the same general structure, beginning quietly and even prosily, and closing with miraculous insights that break down simplistic vision. (p. 196)

[Despite] Simic's explorativeness, the work is, with few exceptions, of very high quality. (p. 197)

Michael Benedikt. "The Shapes of Nature," in Poetry (© 1968 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXIII, No. 3, December, 1968, pp. 188-215.∗

Diane Wakoski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have not yet decided whether Charles Simic is America's great living surrealist poet, a children's writer, a religious writer, or simple-minded. My decision in this matter is irrelevant actually because, whatever he is, his poetry is cryptic and fascinating…. [One of his poems called Poem] contains all the elements which I admire in Simic's work. He begins the poem with his father writing and when he says he "writes in his coffin" the poem has been transferred into a metaphor perhaps for the poet himself…. Then Simic adds, "I, too, would get lost but there's his shadow / On the wall", and I start thinking the poet is writing about God, perhaps death…. This kind of poem you can turn inside out, make symbolic, make metaphoric, make religious, make aesthetic, and still have a beautiful cryptic little piece, written as if it were a folk poem or perhaps a child's verse that wasn't intended to be complex at all. I like those qualities in poetry. They always restore my faith in the poem; make me feel that we should all stop talking about poetry and sit down and memorize some of the poems we love. (pp. 357-58)

Diane Wakoski, "Songs & Notes," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. 118, No. 6, September, 1971, pp. 355-58.∗

Geoffrey Thurley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The most distinctive quality of Simic's poetry] (I hesitate to say straight out its strength) seems actually to be its most signal limitation. This is a brilliant fluency of invention that enables him to sustain a uniform texture through a whole poem and a whole collection of poems—Dismantling the Silence—without its ever offering much substance for the mind to feed on. One would call it a natural metaphysics, except that the word suggests the essentially knotty poetry of the English seventeenth-century poets, and of their modern imitators, poetry which rewards the reader's intelligence with flight, and his diligence with release. The metaphysical conceit detonates in the mind at some depth from the surface, and the labour taken to unravel its complexities generates a light which is logically but mystically related to the substance of the figure chosen. In Charles Simic we have something totally different. He was born in Yugoslavia and in a very material sense has remained a Slav rather than become an American. If we opened his book Dismantling the Silence at random, knowing nothing of the author but the verse offered, we could be forgiven for supposing it the work of some unimaginably brilliant translator, whose Balkan originals were blessedly free of the machine-age and of Americanization. For even the substance of his verse—its material referents—are European and rural rather than American and urban. Simic has 'taverns',...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

David Ignatow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The poems in "Charon's Cosmology" show] that it is possible to write intensely personal poetry without openly placing oneself at the center. In certain poems, though, [Mr. Simic] allows us to believe that he is writing to us directly. In "Charon's Cosmology,"… Mr. Simic does not write in a face-to-face confrontation with his subject and yet the effect is [direct and immediate]…. His poems echo and re-echo in the mind, as of memories of lives, impulses and cataclysms long since buried within us. (pp. 14, 34)

Mr. Simic achieves his successes with the use of symbolist and at times surrealist techniques, but beyond the mere triumph of method lies something far more urgent for him, as can be sensed in "The Prisoner." He is under siege of an anxiety that expresses itself in a highly tangential manner. We all walk around with hints and allusions that flash upon us to a life we rush past in our hurry to bury ourselves in a routine away from fear. Mr. Simic's anxiety is real for us, but his way of handling it is to reveal it to himself completely and, consequently, reveal it also to us. Mr. Simic finds his release in contemplation and in writing of it. This is by now the classical approach among contemporary poets, but he does it differently. In fact, he is quite explicit about its connection with a received religion, as expressed in the last lines of "The Cure":

               They say of St. John of the Cross
               That he would sit,
               Just the way I'm sitting now
               in a small dark place,
               and through a window
               gaze at a distant landscape.

The meaning of this passage is inescapable: that the association is with suffering contained and made sacred through contemplation and, for Mr. Simic, in the act of writing about it. It is his solution to the mystery of living that all of us confront. That he does it often brilliantly is to our benefit as well. (p. 34)

David Ignatow, "Three Poets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 5, 1978, pp. 14, 34.∗

Alan Williamson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Simic's poetry … has often urged on us the importance of the pre-civilized, even the pre-human, portion of ourselves, in a voice ranging from the beguiling spookiness of Eastern European folk tale, in Dismantling the Silence, to an all too modishly American brand of earthiness ("I piss in the sink / with a feeling of / eternity") in parts of Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk. Neither of these extremes is characteristic of Simic's grimmer, more diffident third collection [Charon's Cosmology]. The otherness of bodily existence, in relation to the mapped world we think we inhabit, is still the theme that draws forth Simic's most virtuoso conceits…. (pp. 103-04)

[Often] in this book, the reduction of civilized illusions is accomplished by suffering, rather than by the strangeness of inward powers. Childhood memories of war and poverty seem to lie behind many of these poems…. There can be richness as well as reduction in these memories, witness the beautiful lines in which the mother's brooding becomes a kind of predigested nest of "bones and coals," and "Only its familiar weight / Will make us fall asleep." But often, lingering over beginnings—in a literary sense as well—Simic becomes unconfident that there is anything worth saying ("Ode," "Euclid Avenue"), that "Description" accomplishes anything either for the describer or the described. The resulting poems seem at once attractively...

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Charles Molesworth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The writer of parables must know what he's about, even if they're Zen or surrealist parables, for the reductive logic of plot will otherwise turn into false profundity. Charles Simic has written many surrealist parables, and ["Classic Ballroom Dances"] … shows him trapped in his own style. Those who admire his work (and he has many imitators) praise its bizarre and startling freshness. But the persistence throughout several books of this mythic, folk-flavored simplicity can turn trifling and even cute. The uneven poems, of which there are a large proportion, cast a spell on the others, and Mr. Simic seems to be working out of habit to such an extent that finally the style is everything or nothing. He is not a poet who offers the promise of a new subject or a changing music….

[The images in many of his poems] are drawn neither from life nor from any but the tritest literary forms. If we read [a poem such as "Theory"] (and most of the others) humorously, as a send-up of its own portentousness, it has a saving, winsome slightness. But too often Mr. Simic has other designs, and then the false profundity comes to flood, as in the title poem:

       And the ancient lovers, cheek to cheek,
       On the dance floor of the Union Hall,
       Where they also hold charity raffles
       On rainy Monday nights of an eternal November.

The easy irony of the third line, and the hackneyed qualifiers "ancient" and "eternal," lead right back to the realm of genre painting. In Charles Simic's poetry one has constantly to distinguish between eternal verities and shopworn stylizations. (p. 36)

Charles Molesworth, "Fondled Memories," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 12, 1980, pp. 14, 36-7.∗

Stanley Plumly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Simic is almost unique in American poetry. He was born in another country, into another language. His middle European, Yugoslavian origins still make him an immigrant, an outsider to formal and experiential assumptions that most American poets are not even aware they have. Not that Simic is not an American poet. In fact, Classic Ballroom Dances … is more in the American grain of [William Carlos] Williams than any recent collection one can call to mind. It is a question of sensibility. Simic's profoundly ironic and gnomic distance, his gallows humor, his implacable sense of the absurd come from a source at one remove from the popular, sometimes sentimental attitudes about what we call experience. His taproot runs to something older than social culture, deeper than the social sources of the individual. The real figures in his poems are from primitive folklore, tales, a medieval shadow-world of the literature of memory. He makes a contemporary of the archetypal by treating it as part of the condition of the moment. It is a rare existential discipline, this treating the temporal as if it were eternal, the eternal as if were temporary. His antagonists live in the present as they likely lived, we realize, in the deep past. Simic does not write so much in deep images as he writes from the depths of imagination….

His perceptions read like distillations, which is why he seems just a shade this side of the allegorical. Even his voice is surrendered to the medium, the correlative, the primary object of the poem itself—whether it be paradigm or parable, or a thing simply beautiful, like "December Trees."

Never has Simic been so vulnerable to the human needs of his material; never has he been so willing to let his method open to the pauses and pacing of the whole page, to the resonance of the phrase and the image. Poems such as "The Stream," "Elegy," and "Like Whippoorwills," move with a grace of understanding and evocation and feeling reminiscent of the movement in the best of Williams' "simple" poems….

It is as if an idiom had changed for Simic, as if he could allow his inherited language to absorb the fuller, the more direct report "of the particulars / and their true / magnitudes."

Stanley Plumly, "Of Lyricism, Verbal Energy, the Sonnet, and Gallows Humor," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), November 2, 1980, pp. 10-11.

Robert Shaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is too simple (and simply wrong) to say that poets tailor their styles to gratify their critics. But critical demands, even if they do not force a poet to alter his style in a specified way, encourage him to change it in whatever way he will. An American myth of progress, a pioneer faith in Manifest Destiny, still shapes the preconceptions of many critics and poets in our literature. The absence of change, of visible movement, suggests failure. We expect each collection of poems to advance beyond its predecessor. Paradoxically, we often harbor with our demand for development and novelty, a conflicting desire for continuity, a wish to hear once more a voice we recognize. Hard to please, we want Simic to change, but...

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Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Simic co-edited with Mark Strand the excellent anthology, Another Republic (1976). He shares with Strand an unmitigated conviction that Armageddon is not far off. But whereas the American is seemingly prompted by future fears alone, Simic, a Yugoslav, born to gallows humour as the sparks fly upward, is hounded by the past—the past, one presumes, not simply of his Serbian childhood: the past of Europe, which he retells as a succession of mini-Grimm fairy tales at their most monstrous, peopled by goblins, witches, men marching, blood and bones, phantom horses in the snow, Mongols and foxes: in short, all the paraphernalia of what he himself calls here The Great Dark Night of History. His Yugoslavia is a...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

William Doreski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is language and there are languages. Our obsession with translations from languages few of us can read with any cultural comprehension may be leading us away from the traditional connotative values of English into a Peter Pan world of raw and too often merely clever imagery. But for Charles Simic the encounter with a language and a poet alien to most of us has been decisive and healthy. From Vasco Popa, Simic has learned a tone and strategy unfamiliar to English and American poetry. Simic's best-known poems, like "Table," "Fork", "Knife," and "The Bird," present objects that seem at once too innocent and too self-realized to be products of the old Adamic vision. Merwin's more topographical vision is also a...

(The entire section is 446 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I do not think Charles Simic's [Classic Ballroom Dances] will add to his reputation—a by now firmly established reputation for poems in the surrealist style that has become the academic poetry of the last two decades. Simic's own voice sounded clearly through the babble of his imitators. It was haunted, wryly imaginative, darkly self-possessed. And the poems themselves (their sound and size eventually led one to think of a new sub-genre: A Simic Poem) were distinguished by their unnerving attention to objects, dream images, cognitive traps. But among the three dozen new poems in Classic Ballroom Dances, there is not one to match his first successes. It is almost as if Simic had grown bored with his...

(The entire section is 276 words.)