Some of the most perceptive commentary written since the shock of the presidential election has come on the daily website of the venerable New York Review of Books, under the byline of Charles Simic, who, in his day job, is a former U.S. poet laureate and the winner of many top literary prizes, including the Pulitzer.
Given that Simic’s most recent book, The Life of Images, published last summer by HarperCollins, is a collection of prose essays, should we infer that he is abandoning or setting aside poetry? After all, he’s already written an essay titled “Why I Still Write Poetry” in response to those who apparently think the writing of poetry is something you age out of. It’s worth noting, too, that his Pulitzer Prize-winning book is a collection of prose poems titled The World Doesn’t End (1990). But now that eventuality looks a bit more likely…
Never, says Simic.
“I can’t help it,” Simic says by phone from his home in New Hampshire, where he taught English and creative writing for 30 years at the University of New Hampshire.
“It’s like being a safecracker. It’s an obsession. Anyone who wants to do anything right is never satisfied. Maybe the next one, I’ll get it right. I’ve known carpenters like that.”
Simic travels to Delray Beach on Tuesday to be special guest poet at the 13th Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Other poets scheduled for public events include Carl Phillips, Tina Chang, Terence Hayes, Dorianne Laux, David Baker, Martha Rhodes, Lynn Emmanuel, and Daisy Fried, among others. It will be, aptly, all poetry, all the time. Still, the power of the man’s prose lingers. It features some of the traits admired in his poetry, especially the telling attention to mundane detail.
On Dec. 14, for example, Simic succinctly indicted the Trump juggernaut for its vulgar and cynical successes in a piece on the NYRDaily site. It begins like this: “The Ship of State is sinking and a rooster is chasing a hen in a neighbor’s yard. How can that be? A woman is hanging her husband’s underwear on the laundry line and singing to herself.” Expressing the mute pain of those who disbelieved Trump could ever win the White House, Simic goes on in tones of cool outrage, arriving at the point of spade-calling near the end:
“To mislead one’s fellow citizens on such a vast scale is evil. We’ve seen it before. Never the good old days, of course, but the vile stuff we imagined we’d never see again. How is it possible that mass murder and torture, till yesterday universally condemned, now have their proponents, not just among religious fanatics, but among millions of Americans, including those running for the highest office in the land? The world seems to be divided today between those horrified to see history repeat itself and those who eagerly await its horrors.”
Amazingly, Simic foresaw such an outcome long ago. In 2012, he published an essay, also on NYRDaily, titled “The Age of Ignorance.” In it, Simic surveys the elevation of idiocy as a national virtue, at the expense of knowledge, reason, and even education. The essay concludes presciently.
“What we have in this country is the rebellion of dull minds against the intellect. That’s why they love politicians who rail against teachers indoctrinating children against their parents’ values and resent the ones who show ability to think seriously and independently. Despite their bravado, these fools can always be counted on to vote against their self-interest. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is why millions are being spent to keep my fellow citizens ignorant.”
Considering the dire tone of these elegant, one might say elegiac, jeremiads, what role does Simic see for poets and poetry in such an America? He waves the question away, having no patience with the notion of the “role of poetry.” It brings to mind the attitudes of the communists who ruled his native Yugoslavia after World War II.
“When I hear these things I cringe,” Simic says. “Some poets reflect the turmoil of their times. Walt Whitman wrote about the Civil War. Emily Dickinson lived across the street from a large church where boys came back in coffins. She did not at all notice it in her poetry. They are each great poets.”
As for the present, Simic says there is one certainty. Poets will not fall silent. At the end of World War II, it was said that Auschwitz meant the end of poetry. “How can you write poetry after that?” Simic asks. Before long, however, Paul Celan, a German-language Romanian Jewish poet, “wrote beautifully about it.” Today, Simic adds, poets will do what poets always do, write poetry.
“No question we are discouraged,” Simic says. “It’s paralyzing in many respects. Some poets will engage, others will not. The idea that poets should or must respond to events is absurd. If the world is collapsing, and poets write a poem about their dog, or the landscape, and it’s good work, that’s all I want from them.”
To Simic the act of writing prose is very different from the act of writing poetry. Poetry, he says, “is a kind of doodling.” He writes poetry in bed, while prose gets him upright in a chair, in front of the computer. It involves reading and research and tedium.
An editor once told him the best political essays are written in one sitting, with spontaneity and a light touch, but Simic says it doesn’t work that way for him. Instead, he’s struck by an idea that wakes him up one night, then a second. Finally, on the third night, he rises to write “just so I can forget about this and go to sleep.”
Simic’s description of his prose-writing process may sound like it is more arduous than “doodling.” Nothing is further from the truth. He spends weeks, months, sometimes years on a poem, tinkering endlessly, until one day he suddenly discovers it’s complete, often by taking out something he added just recently.
“I have files of drafts,” Simic says. “I spend a lot of time on my poetry. You can’t write poetry for hours, the way you can prose, but you return to it every day. I go back again and again. It’s an immense labor that’s constant.” The prose, by comparison, is incidental, he says.
Simic belongs to that select coterie of writers who work successfully in English rather in their native tongue. The other members include Joseph Conrad, Polish; Vladimir Nabokov, Russian; and Aleksander Hemon, who, like Simic, grew up speaking Serbian, though a generation or so later. Simic spoke Serbian until he immigrated with his family at age 16.
The great story behind this achievement: Simic began writing poetry to impress girls.
“It never occurred to me to write in any language but English,” he said. “I was living in Oak Park, Ill. What am I going to tell Linda: ‘I wrote a beautiful poem for you, too bad you can’t understand it?’ You can just imagine the reaction.”
Simic’s command of English was poor, but he kept writing, he read deeply, especially in American poetry and fiction, and at some point in his early 20s he stopped having to translate in his head.
“Everything I wrote was stupid,” says Simic, whose first ambition was to be a painter. “You get drawn into the literary life,” he adds. “These things simply happen. Other things I tried in life didn’t succeed. This did.”
Despite his Serbian-language roots, Simic is wholeheartedly an American poet, writing in an American voice. His love of America, its liberties and virtues and natural beauty, its people, comes through in his poetry and in his prose. He’s met many Serbian poets over the years (Simic is 78). “They will say there is nothing Serbian in my work,” he says.
By the way, how did those girls react to his first halting poetic efforts, back in suburban Chicago, circa 1955?
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were impressed,” Simic recalls. “Stunned and pleased, to my great surprise.”
And did Simic, er, you know, make time with the girls?
“Oh, sure,” he says casually, and you’ve never head anything more American in your life.
Charles Simic appears at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival on Tuesday at 4 p.m., and on Wednesday at 8 p.m. after the gala dinner. Tickets are $18 adult, $15 senior, and $12 student. The venue is the Delray Beach Center for the Arts, 51 N. Swinton Ave, Delray Beach. For tickets and a complete schedule of public events, click here.