Charles Simic - Poet Laureate
Everything you didn’t understand
Made you what you are. Strangers
Whose eye you caught on the street
Studying you. Perhaps they were all-seeing
Illuminati? They knew what you didn’t,
And left you troubled like a strange dream.
Not even the light stayed the same.
Where did all that hard glare come from?
And the scent, as if mythical beings
Were being groomed and fed stalks of hay
On these roofs drifting among the evening clouds.
You didn’t understand a thing!
You loved the crowds at the end of the day
That brought you so many mysteries.
There was always someone you were meant to meet
Who for some reason wasn’t waiting.
Or perhaps they were? But not here, friend.
You should have crossed the street
And followed that obviously demented woman
With the long streak of blood-red hair
Which the sky took up like a distant cry.
Here is a collage of Simic’s answers to questions from an interview in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle from back in 1999:
Question: What definition of poetry, by another poet, do you find most revealing?
Charles Simic: Nicanor Parra’s “When they ask for apples, give them pears.”
I’ve lived too many places, loved too many different cultures and peoples to have any clear sense of my own identity. Super patriots are always ready to jump up and shout that they are happy to be this or that. Not me.
Mark Twain has a short essay entitled “How to Tell a Story” in which he says the following: “To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art.” That seems true to me. Ashbery, Edson, Tate also have that outlook, and so do I.
I don’t care for Chaplin's self-pity. Keaton vaccinates us against sentimentality, as Bunuel said. His comedy is reflective. A funny guy who never cracks a smile, an average nobody trying to better himself as he tries to make sense out of an illogical world—in short, a comic Sisyphus. Chaplin can get tiresome after repeated viewing, Keaton never. He remains forever inscrutable, forever entertaining.
I suppose a typical Charles Simic poem leaves out a lot. The premise of my poetry is that the reader’s imagination and intelligence must not be underestimated, so I don’t need to spell out the various implications and meanings. Otherwise, a three-ring circus is what I like; many different acts taking place at the same time.
I don’t like grownup fables very much, nor do I feel to be part of any fabulist tradition. Allegories bore me and so do parables. My preference is a mixture of genres and styles, a fable that suddenly turns into hard realism and vice versa. I need multiple points of view to make sense of things and that includes various imaginative strategies plus an open-eyed look at the world.
The photographer Brassai echoing Flaubert says, “Life provides us with only the accidental, it’s our own talk as artists to transform the accidental into the immutable.” The disorder is the given—you don’t have to seek it. It’s not so much that one puts it in order, rather one finds affinities between its various fragments. A form of a work of art is not something imposed, but something discovered. In any case, I myself prefer the long dirt country roads that lead to nowhere to the gravel paths of a well-designed and kept flower garden.
I’m an unbeliever asking the questions a believer would ask since I think they are the ultimate questions, the only ones worth asking. I suspect that it is possible to go beyond us and experience the transcendent and unknowable One. However, the attributes Christians, Jews, and Mohammedans give to it, make no sense to me. The One is nonintelligible. But yes, on rare occasions we do stand outside ourselves and can feel an affinity with some higher reality.
Clearly, the appearance of man was such a shock to the universe it figured it better quickly find a way to scare him. If not for the fear of dark rooms, human beings would be even more smart-alecky than they are.
. . . [N]ature’s great secret is its laziness. Look at any sunset. Sentimental mush out of a painting in some department store basement. Don’t let earthquakes and hurricanes fool you. Nature likes things to be predictable. Every human being has to croak and no exceptions to the rule, no improvisations. I find such a chicken-shit mindset appalling. Now you take Picasso, there was a fellow who took chances . . .
The plain truth is that we are going to die. Here I am, a teeny speck surrounded by boundless space and time, arguing with the whole of creation, shaking my fist, sputtering, growing even eloquent at times, and then—poof! I am gone. Swept off once and for all. I think that’s very, very funny.