Sunday, September 02, 2007

Simic as Laureate

Another bit on Simic. It's such good news that he's going to be the laureate for the next year. What he says about poetry is always interesting. His essay "Negative Capability & Its Children" is one of my favorites.


Keep the meter running:
America's newest, and foreign-born, poet laureate has traveled a long way

By David Mehegan, Globe Staff August 18, 2007

STRAFFORD, N.H. -- When he got the call from the Library of Congress, telling him he had been nominated as poet laureate of the United States, Charles Simic was hesitant. He recalls thinking, "Do I need this?" He told the caller he was honored to be asked but wanted to think about it, then talked it over with his wife, Helen. "She said, 'You've got to do it -- it's a big honor,' " he said during an interview at his home. "My children said, 'You'll regret it if you don't.' " A few hours later, he called back and accepted.

In the context of his writings, aesthetic outlook, and early life, Simic's reserve is in character. The one-year laureateship (often extended for a year) might appeal to a blowhard who craves a stage. But Simic, 69, while far from an outcast, is a sort of natural outsider: a consummate individual who is suspicious of group thinking, looks at things from an arm's length, and is reluctant to be official. In his 2000 memoir, "A Fly in the Soup," he wrote, "Poetry is always the cat concert under the window of the room in which the official version of reality is being written."

In short, he may be perfectly qualified. "He's the person who should be poet laureate," said Tree Swenson, president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets, which announced that Simic is the 2007 recipient of the academy's $100,000 Wallace Stevens Award, on the same day as the laureate announcement. "Despite his having been born elsewhere," Swenson said, "he has a streak that is typically American. He represents something essential in American poetry."

The poet laureate gives at least two readings at the Library of Congress, selects the poets to appear in the library's year-long poetry series, and chooses the two recipients of $10,000 Witter Bynner Foundation fellowships. Recent laureates have also worked -- with the help of a $35,000 stipend and a $5,000 travel allowance -- to raise the profile of poetry in society. Simic (he pronounces it like the word "mimic") doesn't yet have a plan for his term, which begins in October, but says, "All those sentences that begin with, 'Poetry must . . .,' 'The purpose of poetry is to . . .,' 'Readers of poetry should . . .' -- I will not complete any of those sentences."

Surprising moves

Seated on a sofa in his house in the woods near Bow Lake, Simic was energetic, affable, and expansive as he talked about poetry and his world and life. He read two of his poems aloud with intensity, as if a large audience were listening. Paintings are hung everywhere, and others lean against the walls at the floor.

He has published 18 collections of poetry, and his various anthologies, memoirs, translations, collections of essays, and one biography (of the artist Joseph Cornell) add up to more than 60 books. The winner of numerous awards and honors, including the Pulitzer Prize (1990) and a MacArthur fellowship, he is professor of creative writing and literature emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, where he taught from 1973 to 2006.

Though he says he loves ornate language, Simic's poetic words are almost always plain and concrete. Not that his poems are simple. Many have dreamlike sequences and turns of vision that bend and twist the ordinary sense of things. "He writes remarkable poems, symmetrical on the page, and always surprising," said Donald Hall, the current laureate, who also lives in New Hampshire. "He makes moves during his poems that you can't anticipate, and therefore is constantly shocking you and keeping you awake."

"There was a time when I wouldn't sit down to write a poem without reading Simic for five minutes," said Billy Collins, the 2001-03 laureate. "Not that I wanted to write like him, but that I wanted to be reminded of what wild things can go on in poetry. He uses a very simple vocabulary, and with that simple palette he can achieve amazing imaginative effects."

An immediate affinity

Simic was born in Belgrade in 1938. His family was caught in the maelstrom of war among Germans, Russians, communists, fascists, and other warring armies and factions. They lived first through German bombing and, later in the war, American bombing. He was twice blown out of bed by bombs that fell nearby. Near the end of the war, arrests, killings, and hunger increased, and bodies appeared in rivers and the streets. Playing with other boys in a cemetery, Simic came across two dead German soldiers. Without hesitating, he grabbed the helmet of one, without looking at the face.

In 1944, his father, an engineer who had done business with American companies before the war, crossed the Yugoslav border into Italy and eventually made it to the United States. Simic, his little brother, and his mother, who was a voice teacher, stayed on under the communist government until 1953, when they went to Paris. A year later, they immigrated to the United States.

In "A Fly in the Soup," Simic writes of getting off the Queen Mary in New York, to be met by his father: "It was all incredible and wonderful! The trash on the streets, the way people were dressed, the tall buildings, the dirt, the heat, the yellow cabs, the billboards and signs. . . . It was terrifically ugly and beautiful at the same time. I liked America immediately."

They moved to Chicago, where Simic hungrily absorbed literature and American life, though he began with rudimentary English skills. "In addition to the books I got in school," he writes in his memoir, "I discovered the public library. I couldn't believe that one had the right to take all those wonderful books and records home." After graduating from Oak Park High School -- Ernest Hemingway's alma mater -- he took night classes at the University of Chicago while working as a proofreader at the Chicago Sun-Times. At first, he wanted to be a painter, but soon turned to poetry, publishing two poems in the Chicago Review, only five years after his arrival.

Though his father supported his writing, Simic recalled, "My mother would say, 'What is going to become of you?' In her last four years, she was in a nursing home. I would come to visit her, and she would say, 'Son, do you still write poetry?' I would say yes, and she would shake her head and say, 'No good. You are going to get in trouble.' She would not have liked this poet laureate business."

Sharing the adventure

He moved to New York in 1958, and after a two-year stint in the Army (he was drafted) he graduated from New York University in 1966, and published his first book, "What the Grass Says," in 1967. Despite having no graduate degree, in 1970 he was hired to teach at California State University in Hayward, then was invited to join the faculty of UNH. Married in 1964, he and his wife have two grown children.

So demanding is poetry for Simic that he was taken aback when asked whether he is grateful for all that poetry has done for him. His answer, after a pensive pause, had the kind of unexpected twist that one finds in his poems: "I have never said to myself anything like that. Most of the time poetry, as it exists in the mind of this poet, is a huge pain in the [rear], a huge annoyance, because you are always thinking about it and worrying about things you haven't done well." Then he added, "I am happy it's there. I couldn't imagine my life without this constant annoyance, anxiety, obsession."

Whatever he does in the next year, Simic is experienced in bringing poetry to skeptics. "I enjoyed [teaching] because you are a kind of enthusiast," he said, "trying to convince students, many of whom are resistant, that this is worth reading, that it has something to do with their lives, that this is an imaginative and intellectual adventure for us as we read this poem or story together."


At 9/02/2007 9:57 AM, Blogger Nin Andrews said...

I love Simic. I saw him read about 25 years ago at UVa. With Tate and Ignatow. Simic's accent then was so heavy, and he spoke slowly, laboring thru the poems. It made them seem to me like UFOs, each poems so mystical and unique. He was an amazing experience back then. Perhaps now he is more American.

At the same event Tate completely lost it. He burst into gales of laughter, tears streaming down his face as he read his own work. Ignatow, who followed Tate, began his reading by re-reading Tate's poems, admonishing him for not giving his poems the respect they deserved.

At 9/02/2007 5:13 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That is absolutely fascinating. I've never seen Simic or Tate read (or Ignatow, for that matter).

I heard a tape once of Tate, and he was takin it a bit light then as well. His poems are much better when I read them to myself.

I must hear Simic. I think he's going to read at AWP? Am I remembering correctly? If so, I'll hear him then.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home