Poetic Justice
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"Simic's work embodies human imagination in its simultaneous strangeness and familiarity," says Robert Pinsky, the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997-2000. "His poetry is as homey and bizarre as our dreams, and like dreams his poems each have their own logic—like planets each with their own atmosphere and gravity."

"Transport" is just such a planet of a poem: In the frying pan/On the stove/I found my love/And me naked./Chopped onions/Fell on our heads/And made us cry. In many of his poems, as in these opening lines, Simic uses an everyday object—a fork, a stone, a frying pan—as a turnstile into a new realm.

PASSPORT TO FREEDOM: In 1954, Simic, top, and his brother, Milan, below, reached New York City: "It was terrifically ugly and beautiful at the same time! I liked America immediately."

When presented with a poem, says Simic, a reader thinks, "At the end, there will be a punch line or a moral and I'll be a better person." Once we imagine ourselves into the world of a Simic poem, we do come out feeling as if something has happened to us. By the end of "My Turn to Confess," our intimate knowledge of dogs enables us to imagine—to be—the poet-as-dog, lying slumped on the floor/chewing on a pencil/sighing from time to time/Growling, too, at something out there/ I could not bring myself to name.

It also helps that we get to the end fairly fast, thanks in part to Simic's minimalist style. "He doesn't take shelter behind an armor of word-salad," says Pinsky.

In fact, Simic's work seems to have nearly universal appeal, pleasing readers as much as critics, and many of his collections of poems have been translated into multiple languages. He is often referred to as a surrealist, a label he resists. "Neo-surrealist, neo-formalist, post-modernist—these labels don't explain anything," he says with a shrug. "They're just going to call you something."

Some of the most bizarre images in Simic's work, like the six-legged calf in "The County Fair," actually come straight out of reality—the freak show at New Hampshire's Deerfield Fair, in this case. Still, a German reviewer who says Simic's surrealism is really just Serbian realism has a point. Simic was born, after all, into a world where it was entirely possible to be blasted out of bed, not once, but twice, by the bad guys, and the good.

Simic's poetry, says Michael Ferber, a UNH professor of English and longtime friend, could easily give readers the idea that he is "a strange and difficult man, delusional, hallucinatory, and given to apocalyptic seizures. In reality, he's one of the sanest people I know—perfectly plugged into the real world, affable, friendly, generous, likes good food, loves to have company." Alluding to the poet's lifelong insomnia, Ferber says, "He has this nighttime persona, and a lot of poems come to him while he's lying in bed staring at the ceiling. Sometimes I think he writes poems in order to stay sane."

Says Simic, "I am certainly the child of my insomnia. I think we're all products of some aspect of our life that's out of the ordinary, that makes us who we are." As for maintaining one's sanity: "You just have to have something that you do—like taking care of five kids. They drive you crazy but in a way they're your purpose in life."

Ferber says he has learned from another aspect of Simic's makeup—his abiding suspicion of ideological movements and his belief that "people can get in the grip of a Big Idea, and the next thing you know they're rounding up people and shooting them." In the 1990s, Simic saw his former country seized by a different kind of "ism." As Slobodan Miloševic whipped the Serbs into a nationalistic frenzy, Simic "wrote and wrote and wrote" for opposition newspapers in Serbia. Miloševic, he notes, was elected—and re-elected—by the Serbs, unlike earlier fascist and communist governments, and that taught Simic a bitter lesson: "You just need a committed passionate fanatic minority to lead a society over a cliff." Even among American Serbs, the nationalistic fever took hold, and Simic lost friends and made enemies as a result of his outspokenness. But he has been deeply moved by Bosnian Muslims who have thanked him for his efforts.

Fifty-four years after coming to this country, Simic still has an accent reflective of his native language. "But at some point, I knew English better than I knew Serbian," he says, "and in terms of literary vocabulary, I could never write a poem in Serbian." Today, he feels more American than not. He has served in the Army, he points out, given perhaps a thousand poetry readings across the country since 1967, raised two children here, and lived in Strafford, N.H., for more than 30 years.

Simic came to UNH in 1973 after teaching for a couple of years at California State College in Hayward. He had married Helen Dubin, a dress designer and daughter of a Russian and Serbian couple, in 1964. As Simic's reputation has grown exponentially, he has had many offers to go elsewhere. But he likes it here—the small community; the university, which he says treats him well; his colleagues and the lakeside ranch house where he and Helen raised their two children, Anna '88 and Philip '95, who both attended UNH.

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