(Photo by Richard Drew, AP)
As the AP reported Thursday, Charles Simic will be the new U.S. Poet Laureate. A Pulitizer-winner and emeritus professor at the University of New Hamshire, he remarked "I am especially touched and honored to be selected because I am an immigrant boy who didn't speak English until I was 15."
Some of the greatest writers in English didn't learn it as their first language. I always think of Joseph Conrad, Vladamir Nabokov and Tom Stoppard, who use English with extreme precision (although Nabokov and Stoppard learned English at a very young age). I imagine the act of searching for the exact right words, driven by a keen mind and an artistic spirit, lends itself to that degree of care and eloquence.
Simic was born in Yugoslavia in 1938. As The Washington Post reports:
...Simic cites as his first memory the 1941 bombing of Belgrade, when a next-door blast threw him from bed and knocked him unconscious. He was barely 3. His mother rushed in and scooped him up, Simic says, "and that's how my life sort of started." (That 3 a.m. episode would later become "Cameo Appearance," which begins, "I had a small, nonspeaking part / In a bloody epic.")
It was not war, however, or even love of words that brought Simic to poetry. It was instead the most sublime of adolescent reasons: girls.
Here the accounts differ slightly. According to the Post:
After immigrating to the United States at 16, Simic witnessed his buddies score dates by writing drippy love sonnets. He thought he could do better. "Turns out," he says, "I couldn't. The girls told me I bored them to death."
Whereas the AP reports:
Simic graduated from the same suburban Chicago high school as Ernest Hemingway, where he started writing poetry in high school to attract girls, he said.
"They were always surprised. `You wrote this for me?'" he said. "They're so surprised, they don't want to play literary critic at that moment."
So which one was it, huh? Surely a special prosecutor should investigate this! (In any case, Simic has been married to fashion designer Helen Dubin for 43 years and they have two children, so everything seems to have worked out.)
As to Simic's potential approach to his new position, Monica Hesse's piece for the Post leads with:
The way to become a poetry lover, according to the next U.S. poet laureate, Charles Simic:
Find a poetry anthology, any one will do, at the library.
Open it at random. Read aloud one stanza.
You won't like most of what you read.
But whatever you like, read that.
Don't worry about reading the English-teachery stuff at first, since most people's taste will organically mature. There's only one potential warning sign relating to poetry preferences, says Simic, 69: "If greeting-card verse brings you to tears at the age of 70, well, what can I say. You might be beyond help.
Hesse later qualifies some of the slight anti-intellectual shading of the last paragraph, and it would be nice to have a longer direct quotation from Simic versus her characterization — Simic is a professor of English, after all. Hesse's piece overall is appreciative but written in a breezy style. I suspect Simic's actual views are just common sense and in the spirit of Robert Pinksy's Favorite Poem Project, which encourages personal choice and connection. A good class will increase anyone's appreciation of a given art, but art doesn't need overly-authoritarian gatekeepers pre-approving someone's private viewing list, and no good teacher would employ such a model. One of the best aspects of exploring the Favorite Poem Project is seeing how many people, often from widely different walks of life, have a favorite poem or two. Those choices are highly personal and often extremely revealing.
The Poets.org entry on Simic captures this spirit beautifully with Simic's own words:
In his essay "Poetry and Experience," Simic wrote: "At least since Emerson and Whitman, there's a cult of experience in American poetry. Our poets, when one comes right down to it, are always saying: This is what happened to me. This is what I saw and felt. Truth, they never get tired of reiterating, is not something that already exists in the world, but something that needs to be rediscovered almost daily."
In any case, while several people sing Simic's praises in the pieces linked above, the best testimony is his work itself. Here's a handful of his poems:
Eyes Fastened With Pins
by Charles Simic
How much death works,
No one knows what a long
Day he puts in. The little
Wife always alone
Ironing death's laundry.
The beautiful daughters
Setting death's supper table.
The neighbors playing
Pinochle in the backyard
Or just sitting on the steps
Drinking beer. Death,
Meanwhile, in a strange
Part of town looking for
Someone with a bad cough,
But the address somehow wrong,
Even death can't figure it out
Among all the locked doors...
And the rain beginning to fall.
Long windy night ahead.
Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked
On death's side of the bed.
There's a wit to this piece, even black humor, but also compassion in creatively imagining Death as one more working stiff. Moving on, there's:
by Charles Simic
The mail truck goes down the coast
Carrying a single letter.
At the end of a long pier
The bored seagull lifts a leg now and then
And forgets to put it down.
There is a menace in the air
Of tragedies in the making.
Last night you thought you heard television
In the house next door.
You were sure it was some new
Horror they were reporting,
So you went out to find out.
Barefoot, wearing just shorts.
It was only the sea sounding weary
After so many lifetimes
Of pretending to be rushing off somewhere
And never getting anywhere.
This morning, it felt like Sunday.
The heavens did their part
By casting no shadow along the boardwalk
Or the row of vacant cottages,
Among them a small church
With a dozen gray tombstones huddled close
As if they, too, had the shivers.
The poem features some striking imagery, creating a sense of forboding.
Meanwhile, consider Simic's words about "This is what happened to me. This is what I saw and felt," with this piece:
by Charles Simic
Enter without knocking, hard-working ant.
I'm just sitting here mulling over
What to do this dark, overcast day?
It was a night of the radio turned down low,
Fitful sleep, vague, troubling dreams.
I woke up lovesick and confused.
I thought I heard Estella in the garden singing
And some bird answering her,
But it was the rain. Dark tree tops swaying
And whispering. "Come to me my desire,"
I said. And she came to me by and by,
Her breath smelling of mint, her tongue
Wetting my cheek, and then she vanished.
Slowly day came, a gray streak of daylight
To bathe my hands and face in.
Hours passed, and then you crawled
Under the door, and stopped before me.
You visit the same tailors the mourners do,
Mr. Ant. I like the silence between us,
The quiet--that holy state even the rain
Knows about. Listen to her begin to fall,
As if with eyes closed,
Muting each drop in her wild-beating heart.
Lovely stuff. Finally, here's a short piece:
by Charles Simic
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.
Best of luck to Charles Simic in his new position, and bravo!
Update 8/6/07: NPR station KCRW has posted an installment of their show Bookworm from 9/5/02 featuring an interview with Simic.