Return to html version of Charles Simic: Poetic JusticePoetic Justice
I grew up bent over a chessboard.
So begins a poem called "Prodigy" by Charles Simic. And it's true. At an early age, Dušan, as he was then known, was remarkably good at chess. But in another sense, he grew up on a chessboard, in a country where order had turned to chaos and carnage. It began in April 1941, when Hitler invaded Yugoslavia and bombarded Belgrade. That was the first time 3-year-old Dušan was thrown from his bed by the force of a bomb exploding nearby.
It happened again in 1944, and this time the Allies were dropping the bombs. Even at the age of 6, Dušan could see that thousands of innocent people were harmed, while the Gestapo's headquarters remained unscathed. By then, he was taking chess lessons with a retired astronomy professor, but he and his friends also played at war, pretending to drop bombs out of windows and machine-gun each other down on the street. Real battles were taking place among the fascists, communists, royalists and other factions in Belgrade. The Nazi puppet government, having vowed to kill 100 civilians for every slain German soldier, hung the corpses from telephone poles. Dušan's mother tried to shield him against such sights by tucking his head under her overcoat.
By the time he wrote "Prodigy" in 1977, Dušan had long since escaped that chessboard of terror and become Charles Simic, a Serbian-American who spoke with a self-described "atrocious Slavic accent," but wrote poetry in English. The poem is one of his favorites today because it is unique among the hundreds he has written, so autobiographical and yet effortlessly metaphorical. Still, the effects of his childhood can be glimpsed in virtually everything he writes, in his dark sense of humor, his keen eye for the surreal, his folkloric images—or even just his deep appreciation of sausage.
Today, the UNH professor emeritus is at the pinnacle of American letters, having won the Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur "genius" grant and countless other awards. In August, he received two more honors in one day when he was named the recipient of the $100,000 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, and the 15th Poet Laureate of the United States. The author of 18 books of poetry, he is also an essayist, translator and poetry editor of The Paris Review. In short, the prodigy has become not a master of chess, but a master of words—words he can use to transport readers, fight a modern-day tyrant, or galvanize young writers.
In his 69 years, Simic has lived a life that is, like poetry itself, a distillation of human experience. In childhood, he moved freely between modern and medieval times simply by traveling from Belgrade to a village where relatives lived. As eager as he was to return to the city after a summer in the country, however, it always took a few weeks to be reinstated in the neighborhood gang. "I felt like a stranger, as I was to feel so many times in my life," he writes in his memoir, A Fly in the Soup.
In the midst of the war, Dušan's father, George, fled the country, leaving behind his 6-year-old son and pregnant wife. While his mother was in the hospital with the new baby, Dušan secretly began bartering gunpowder for toys and food. He stashed ammunition in the basement and used the kitchen faucet to pry open the shells—until a friend performing a similar maneuver lost both his hands.
After the Germans were defeated, the realities of life in a communist country emerged, including indoctrination in school and overt efforts to use children to spy on their parents. The family learned that Dušan's father had made it to America, where he was working as an engineer, and his mother made several attempts to reunite the family despite the dangers of crossing the border. On one occasion, the English army delivered them back into the hands of the Yugoslav army, and Dušan and his brother spent two weeks in jail.
Eventually, they received passports and spent a year in Paris, waiting for a U.S. visa. Feeling like a "foreigner under suspicion," Dušan did poorly in school, but learned a little English and escaped into another world by watching Hollywood movies. In August 1954, they landed on Ellis Island and were reunited with George, who renamed his elder son, then 16, Charles. "It was nothing like Europe," writes Simic in his memoir. "It was terrifically ugly and beautiful at the same time! I liked America immediately."
By 1963, when Simic returned to New York after serving as a military policeman for the U.S. Army in France, he had already lived a lifetime's supply of experiences to plumb for artistic purposes. He also had a new aesthetic, having burned every poem he had ever written up to that point. He received a bachelor's degree in Russian in 1967 from New York University and published his first book of poems that same year. His work was well received from the beginning.
"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.
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.
As Poet Laureate, Simic will receive a $35,000 privately endowed stipend and an office in Washington, D.C. The minimal requirements—to give a lecture and reading and to introduce poets in an annual series—are designed to allow him to set his own agenda. For weeks after the announcement, Simic was inundated with invitations and requests for interviews. One day a PBS camera crew followed him around for 10 hours. His friends dreamed up projects for him: Collaborate with Oprah on an anthology of poetry! Put haiku inside fortune cookies! Simic, however, would only say that he planned to assess the situation in October, at the beginning of his eight-month term.
In a wide-ranging conversation on a summer afternoon, Simic becomes most animated when asked about his teaching. A loon croons in the distance, and the lake can be glimpsed through the leafy woods surrounding his deck. In every beginning poetry class, he explains, several students will reveal hidden talent. "A certain quality of imagination, a way of looking at the world, a love of language—all suddenly emerges. They're excited, I'm excited, and the other kids in class are astonished." Some of the images these beginners have written—a small child pushing a plastic lawnmower between the graves as his father mows the grass in a cemetery—have stayed with him for decades. At the graduate level, he says, he often encounters truly first-rate work, and so many UNH poetry students have gone on to publish their work in magazines and books that "we've lost count." Although he retired a year ago, he still chooses to teach one course a year at UNH.
Lee Fetters '07G came to UNH in 2004 expressly to study with Simic; yet he was a bit cowed at the prospect. "I expected I would walk into class and have this brutal Eastern European guy telling me my poetry really stinks and I'm too sensitive about it," he says with a half-laugh. Instead, he found a famous writer for whom teaching was not "just a gig that lets him write. He's just a wonderful teacher, and he's a wonderful poet."
In the classroom, Simic shares plenty of anecdotes—Fetters remembers itching to hear his stories about famous writers. But the poet is also known for being uncommonly direct. In fact, his teaching is much like his writing: colorful, darkly humorous and playful. And he doesn't hide behind "word-salad" in person any more than he does on paper.
Midge Goldberg '06G, a 43-year-old educational-software designer who recently became the first to receive a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from UNH, remembers bringing to class a poem called "House," which began: The roof is pitched/This should tell you/There is snow here. When Simic suggested that she end the poem right there, she was taken aback: "I just wrote 10 stanzas and he only wants one?! But the first stanza always felt magical to me—the rest were based on an abstract idea—and he really zeroed in on that." She took his advice.
"You have to be frank with students to help them," says Simic. "In a good writing workshop, everyone participates in an open, constructive way. You don't overdo it, but if somebody bursts out laughing and says, 'This is a very bad line!'—that's good. We all write crap. Why pretend it isn't?"
In the third week of school, Simic sits at the head of a conference table in a class of undergrad and graduate students. He wears black leather—a sort of softened, refined bomber jacket—and his glasses, the kind that darken in the sun, remain slightly tinted even indoors. He's talking about how hard it can be to share a poem with someone for the first time, a poem that has caused you "months and months of serious torture." Then turning on a single word, much as he would in a poem, he adds, "Waterboarding!" and everyone laughs.
In a student's poem, "One Bright Thing," Simic draws attention to the first line. It's such a nice line that he wants the reader to savor it, and suggests making a stanza break right there. A poem is like a clock, he says, and you set the speed by adjusting the breaks. Another student has a problem with a particular image, and Simic concurs. "Do the birds really look 'bedraggled'?" he asks, humorously bedraggling the word itself with his intonation. "This is the gorgeous pleasure of a short poem—the tinkering one can do. It's sort of a chess problem." He tells the class about the newspaper chess problems that identify the positions with numbers and say something like "White mates in two moves."
"These problems," says Simic,"are contrived by perverse intellects to cause sleepless nights among lovers of chess. You would set up the pieces on the board and months would go by." One of his poems, too, may go through 10 to 100 revisions—adding and taking away, moving pieces around—which can take months. "But when you realize you have a solution, then you get this feeling. . ." he rubs his hands together with glee, "if you just make this little move here."
Simic turns to the young writer. "This is an intense poem," he says. "Every word here is important." ~
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