The Poetry of Charles Simic: Simplicity Sings

Charles Simic’s poetry specializes in illustrating the profound within the mundane. Simic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1938 (Ford). He is of Serbian descent. Naturally, his early life was dominated by the Nazi period. While of much Simic’s work derives from this time (Ford), he often explores the legacies of such a totalizing war on Western society and culture. Simic’s father fled Yugoslavia in 1944, and did not reunite with his family until a decade later in 1954 in the United States (Ford). In the U.S., Simic worked a series of odd jobs until joining the Army in 1961, returning to Europe as a military policeman in Germany and France (Ford). After some time in New York, he accepted a professorship in 1973 from the University of New Hampshire, where he has since remained (Ford).

Simic’s poetry is an exegesis of his time. His work encompasses both the tragedy of war and the monotony of modern life. There are underlying currents of conflict in Simic’s work. Tension arises between Europe and America, the profound and the mundane, and the deep, but perhaps fleeting, legacy of wartime Europe on Western life. Simic’s work is best understood as balancing these apparent contradictions in a candid and illuminating manner. Simic’s poems are not long, and are not lost to verbosity. For Simic, thoughts on everyday interactions and objects evoke the important motifs and conflicts that have colored his life. Simic juxtaposes these tensions and interpolates his poems with a rewarding touch of simplicity. His work is best understood as an ode to the postwar mentality of relief and malaise, and perhaps a slight loss of words in modern life following the horrors and atrocities of the Nazi regime.

Simic discusses the importance of brevity to his work in his interview with Michael Milburn. While Simic’s poems could be criticized as highly uniform in their structure and perhaps too short, he refuses to equate excellence with length. He describes to Milburn that, “‘When I was 21, I wrote an 80 page poem about the cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition very much in the manner of Pound’s Cantos. For a few months, I thought it was a work of true greatness, then one day my eyes were opened’” (Milburn 157). Simic, throughout his life, has been a voracious reader and consumer of historical and philosophical knowledge. However, he rarely ingrains specific references, or even proper nouns, in his brief poems. While Simic has the ability to go into a detailed account of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, he sees the feeling of such pain as best described rather than related. He goes on to state that, “‘I can fit all my notions of heaven and earth now on the cover of a match. By temperament, I’m a miniaturist. I paint angels on the head of a pin. I make towers out of breadcrumbs’” (157). Simic’s minimalism reflects a tendency in postwar literature to avoid explicit statements and focus on evoking emotion.

Simic is devoid of the stereotypical pretensions of the modern poet. Like his poetry, which depicts everyday life, Simic has an appreciation for less-educated and inexperienced readers and values their engagements with his work. In his interview with Milburn, Simic explains that, “‘Years ago in New York while teaching poetry in the schools, I realized that even a semi-literate juvenile delinquent can be savvy about poetry. My poems invited the readers to use their imagination, and they had no difficulties in that departments’” (156). Simic’s appreciation for the imagination and the younger reader demonstrates his almost humanistic faith in the value of a wide array of people engaging with his work. This illustrates Simic’s conscious approachability and recognition of mass culture and the worth of the individual in modern life. Simic’s appreciation for the poor and working class is explored in an interview with J.M. Spalding. Simic exclaims to Spalding that “‘Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves. Not many people seem to notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them’” (Spalding). While this admission may seem out of place, it helps characterize Simic’s creative process. He states that, “‘I would rather live in Harlem than in Westchester County’” (Spalding). Simic strives to be a poet whose work draws from, and can speak to, almost anyone.

Simic’s experiment in brevity is fundamentally rooted in his concept of the postwar world. For Simic, in contemporary Western life, there is no unifying national narrative that grants credence to the epic. In a post-Holocaust world that has rejected many forms of extreme patriotism, Simic is skeptical toward purportedly common cultures. In his interview with Milburn, Simic states that, “‘Our poets have plenty to say, but for that kind of long poem you need a common culture, a religion you believe in, a mythology and a history- and, as everybody knows, that ain’t available to us anymore’” (Milburn 158). Simic has an appreciation for humanists such as Whitman who explore common cultures through connections to both nature and everyday life. However, Simic seems less convinced by Ginsberg’s sometimes mechanic and referential depictions of postwar American life (158). Simic sees his own work as more simplistic beauty emerging from the maelstrom identified by Ginsberg. Simic writes that, “‘My poems are a species of found poetry. I discover the little you see on the page in longer stretches of writing’” (158). Simic’s poems are both explanatory and applicable. His work is not rooted in one particular cultural narrative, but nevertheless explores everyday Western postwar life.

Simic’s minimalism extends to a humored criticism of modern-day malaise and the contemporary human condition. At the conclusion of his book The World Doesn’t End, Simic writes, “‘My secret identity is / The room is empty, / And the window is open’” (159). Here, Simic’s minimalism reaches a concrete connection with modern life. While his character yearns to acknowledge his “secret identity,” he cannot help but be overcome by the loneliness of his surroundings in the empty room and the innumerable possibilities alluded to with the open window. This reflects a position that is it, at its core, particularly postmodern. Of his poetry, Simic states that, “‘I’ve always subscribed to the old symbolist idea that the poet performs only one part of the creative act, the reader does the rest’” (159). Simic sees the reader as an active engager with the poem, playing perhaps a larger role than the poet himself. Like the character susceptible to such lonely opportunity trying to articulate his secret identity, the reader is able to ascribe a multitude of meanings to Simic’s work in the solitary act of reading the poem. On this passage, Simic explains that, “‘The poem must have come out of an inspired and drastic act of butchery’” (159). For Simic, there is no takeaway message at the conclusion of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book. It is up to the reader to ascribe meaning for himself.

Simic’s poetry also reflects the fleeting nature of wartime legacy and human tragedy in general. He states that, “‘Even history, which I take far more seriously than the story of my loves and heartbreaks, is not finally a subject’” (161). Simic does not consider history to be comprehensive or exhaustive enough to qualify as its own subject in his work. A poem about a wartime experience can be extrapolated to make another point. He explains that, “‘I often begin about some great horror and injustice, but the words on the page take me to a completely unrelated topic’” (161). In much of his wartime work, Simic moves from an observation of the Nazis or their crimes to a more universal interaction or object that could interpreted by the reader from a number of angles. In “Two Dogs,” Simic recalls “The earth trembling, death going by / A little white dog ran into the street / And got entangled with the soldiers’ feet. A kick made him fly as if he had wings. That’s what I keep seeing! / Night coming down. A dog with wings.” (Ford). In his episode, Simic begins the passage equating the Nazi procession with “death going by.” However, he moves away from the image of the Nazi soldiers to the dog flying against the night sky. His simple but evocative imagery points the reader in a few different directions and allows him or her to make their own conclusions about the passage.

Simic’s interview with Mark Ford for The Paris Review touches on the tension and juxtaposition of Europe and the United States in Simic’s life and poetry. Arriving in the United States for the first time, Simic felt quite a world away from Europe. He relates that, “‘It was an astonishing sight in 1954. Europe was so gray and New York was so bright. European cities are like operatic stage sets. New York looked like painted sets in a sideshow at a carnival where the bearded lady, sword-swallowers, snake charmers, and magicians made their appearances’” (Ford). For Simic, New York represented a land of opportunity and merriment, whereas Europe was still reeling from the deep wounds of the catastrophic Nazi regime. However, the contrast between Nazi-era Europe and contemporary times is not so stark for Simic. He feels that, “‘The same type of lunatics who made the world what is was when I was a kid are still around. They want more wars, more prisons, more killing. It’s all horribly familiar, very tiresome and frightening, of course’” (Ford). Simic contends the world is this way despite the fact that his mother felt his family’s lives had been made meaningless by history (Ford). Despite the glamour of modern American culture, the threats of wartime Europe persist in the modern era for Simic.

Simic explores the legacy of postwar Europe in the United States and in his own personal life in “Butcher Shop.” In the poem, Simic revels in the butcher shops of his Manhattan neighborhood that remind him of staples back home in Belgrade. However, Simic cannot shed the darker connotations of these shops from the tragedy and destruction of World War II. Simic acknowledges that, “‘In those days there were still Polish and Italian butcher shops in that part of town. Of course, it reminded me of Europe, of my childhood.’” This familiar sight must have brought Simic from comfort so far away from the land he was raised in. But far from a consoling homage to his home, in the poem he writes, “There is a wooden block where bones are broken, / Scraped clean- a river dried to its bed / Where I am fed, / Where deep in the night I hear a voice” (Ford). Simic uses the imagery of the “bones” being “broken” and “scraped clean” to conjure all-to-familiar sights of carnage during the war. The voice in the night harkens to his compatriots that did not survive this bloody time. In the Ford interview, he states that, “‘It took me many years and meetings with some of my childhood friends from Belgrade to realize that I grew up in a slaughterhouse’” (Ford). In a tragic way, the butcher shop he illustrates in the poem reminds him of Belgrade in more ways than one.

Simic’s poetry mirrors his life. He strives to bring meaning to the mundane and to explore the beauty inherent in tensions and contradictions in culture and society. But much of Simic’s simplicity may lie in his own personal preference. In an interview with Rachael Allen, he states that, “In the kitchen, I like simple dishes cooked to perfection rather than elaborate culinary creations. In music too, the fewer the instruments there are, the better” (Allen). While it is difficult to determine what exactly inspires Simic for a particular passage or poem, he will continue to be respected and remembered as a poet who said more with less.

Bibliography

Milburn, Michael. “An Interview with Charles Simic.” Harvard Review. (Fall, 1997), 156-165. Web.

Ford, Mark. “Interviews: Charles Simic, The Art of Poetry No. 90.” The Paris Review. (Spring, 2005). Web.

Allen, Rachael. “Interview: Charles Simic.” Granta. August 5, 2013. Web.

Spalding, J.M. “Charles Simic.” The Courtland Review. (August, 1998). Web.

Charles Simic’s Memories: Real and Unreal

In an interview, Charles Simic said, “My early life seems like a dream…There’s an element of unreality about it.”[i] Simic’s early life was spent attempting to flee World War Two bombs in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where he “could easily have been a casualty of war.”[ii] The “unreality” of his circumstances tainted Simic’s innocent experiences of childhood, which were affected by violence and fear at the hands of unyielding political forces. In his poetry, Simic translates his early life into a subtle blurring of the realities of war and of common life, and in doing so, seeks to subvert the power structures at the root of suffering. In “Cameo Appearance” Simic writes, “In the distance our great leader/ Crowed like a rooster from a balcony,/ Or was it a great actor/ Impersonating our great leader?” A politician is compared to an animal and a fraud. This gives a harshly critical political commentary in a simple manner. Simic conveys complicated feelings in an accessible, visceral language that urges the questioning of the true nature of a person, object, or action. In his poetry, a grandmother is a killer, toys are senseless soldiers, and an infant cries for the tragedies of the world. Drawing upon his childhood, Charles Simic uses surrealistic and realistic images of memories to convey the paradoxical unreality and reality of war.

Charles Simic’s wartime childhood had a large influence on the composition of language in his poems. The experience of scarcity led to a fascination with the few items available to entertain an imaginative child. He describes his life thusly: “When you’re being bombed and you live in a place where there’s not much to eat, one lives in a kind of solitary confinement…Inside your room, there’s not much. You keep seeing the same things over and over- the same walls, the same chair. It’s a kind of minimalist art.”[iii] During war, the scope of reality narrows. The “minimalism” of his life in Belgrade vaulted simple items into the realm of the extraordinary as they took on new importance. Simic said that “[he had to] reimagine the object daily in order to make life bearable. As far as being a child- a child plays with these objects.”[iv] This experience directly influenced his poetry, as it trained him to view small sections of reality as closely and unflinchingly as possible. Additionally, his concise and direct use of language could be called “minimalistic” in its construction. The constant refiguring of objects in relation to himself led to a fascination with the possibilities such objects hold. In “The Big War”, cheap toy soldiers become surreal personifications of the real war happening on Simic’s doorsteps. “I used to lie on the floor/ For hours staring them in the eye./ I remember them staring back at me in wonder.” The clay figurines are given emotions as they contemplate the power their “leader”, the boy Simic, wields over their lives. In the poem, Simic goes on to break the figurines, symbolizing their futility and the ultimate lack of power they have over their lives, much like real soldiers in war. The surrealistically portrayed figurines are ultimately grounded in reality. When confronted with reality, Simic is wary of it. Simic was a witness to the horrors of World War Two and other atrocities of the twentieth century, and was given the sense that true reality is unbearable. When discussing the intersection of poetry and history, Simic writes: “I am beginning to worry that history is not the right word here, that I am describing the pressure of reality on the contemporary poet…On one hand the multiplication of the images of suffering and atrocity, and on the other hand the unreality they bring to our lives with the accompanying suspicion that all life is meaningless…It is the irrationality of history that is our experience.”[v] Even as he writes about true events, he knows they lack a sense of reality, and that unease translates to his writing. The “irrational” is most evident in the surreal dream-world of “Nineteen Thirty-eight”. In the poem, the dramatic events of that year unfold alongside a baby’s surreal self-awareness as he crudely pees, cries, and breastfeeds. The arrangement of images and references borders on comedy, as Stalin’s murderousness and Dairy Queen’s ubiquity are mentioned in the same breath, blending politics and popular culture. The involuntary actions of Simic’s baby-self mirror the powerlessness of an adult unable to act as an individual as irrational events both terrible and miraculous occurred around the world. Most telling is the abrupt line, “People worried the world was about to end,” inserted about halfway through the list of events and communicating the sense of unfathomability people faced. The Simic-baby’s experience ends as he writes, “I thought I heard myself cry for a long, long time.” As a baby would have no concrete memories, this awareness is yet another surreal image. It is an image of a child grieving for a world he has yet to discover or participate in, underlining the absurdity both of history and of the poem’s imagery itself.

In reference to the surrealistic index of imagery in his poems, Simic likens himself to the Northern Renaissance artist Peter Brueghel: “We hear of Brueghel turning the eyes upside down by looking at the landscape through his legs. He didn’t do that the first time. He did it when he realized that the only way to see what is there is to be upside down in the world.”[vi] The act of seeing upside down, paradoxically, makes the world clearer. In Simic’s poems, surrealism and strangeness are the only logical imageries that make sense when referencing war as war itself is so surreal. “Slaughterhouse Flies” offers surrealistic images in the two-stanza poem recalling his home. “Evenings, they ran their bloody feet/ Over the pages of my schoolbooks.” Though he is referencing insects, the immediate association is of soldiers in the street, trampling a child’s book with their violence. The trees speak, and cows grow suspicious of their own sudden death. Simic’s assignment of human thoughts and feelings to other organisms lend a startling sense of urgency to the scene, and associations of blood and violence are tangible connections to war. Even as Simic’s early memories have a sense of the unreal, much of his language and imagery is rooted in stark reality. He states that reality itself is often the basis of his poems: “Everything begins with the rock-bottom reality, which is the reality in front of my nose….It’s always some kind of experience- an experience which is tied to a physical place, some object, some image- they’re the ones that make the poem begin to be written.”[vii]

A real memory usually inspires a poem, and is often object-oriented. As much as Simic’s poems operate in the fantastical, a chilling vein of reality is present in all of them. “Prodigy” seems to be a mythic tale of learned wisdom coming from the ‘heavens’ as “A retired professor of astronomy/ taught me how to play [chess].” Simple details about the objects and setting establish the reality of the poem and highlight one of Simic’s signature styles. What seems to be a simple repartee leading to more information about the game itself is interrupted with the following stanza: “I’m told but do not believe/ that that summer I witnessed/ men hung from telephone poles.” The poem is no longer a surrealistic childhood game; the reference to executions, mortality, and violence vault the poem into the realm of war seen through the eyes of a child. Even though he mentions the “planes and tanks” in the scene, it is with the passing interest of a bored child. It is not until Simic mentions the hangings that the tone of the poem shifts completely into the realm of realism. Simic himself doubts the veracity of these events, questioning if the moment ever happened, and thus including a vein of surrealism in his realist memory. The combination of both realism and surrealism in “Prodigy” make it a powerful, effective poem that instantly fascinates even as it repels. Ultimately, Simic is capturing and writing about a sense of timelessness in his poems. Whether experiences or images are real or imagined, they are suspended in the weightless space of memory. “…To translate, in a sense, that whole different world [of war], it takes a long time. I wish to make them in some way timeless…it seems to me that all those events still go on, and if you look at people who have come out of the War, that part of their life goes on. I think every tragedy, every event, some place on some scale continues. Is still current. Is still present.”[viii]

Unlike other memories, memories of war are so visceral that they never truly end. There is a sense, in Simic’s poems, that the reality and unreality of his words are an attempt to keep a moment alive so as to never forget it. In “Lingering Ghosts”, Simic writes: “Give me a long dark night and no sleep,/ And I’ll visit every place I have ever lived.” In these two lines, Simic desires an element of magic to transport himself to the past in order to bear witness to it. He effortlessly blends the desire for something unreal and the desire to access the real. ‘Timelessness’ is desired not to relive the past but to honor it. Simic’s war poems try to create that ‘timelessness’, however strange or shockingly real it may seem. Simic confesses that he hopes “to restore strangeness to the most familiar aspects of existence, all that for the sake of living more intensely.”[ix] By becoming comfortable with the reality of wartime surrealism, like Simic, one is able to live a life of deeper awareness.

[i] Simic, Charles. “The Toy of Language.” Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets. Steve Ratiner. University of Massachusets Press, Boston. 2002. Print.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Simic, Charles. “Notes on Poetry and History.” 1984. The Uncertain Certainty. Ed. Donald Hall. The University of Michigan Press, 1985. Print.

[vi] Simic, Charles. “A Retired School Teacher in Galoshes.” 1982. The Uncertain Certainty. Ed. Donald Hall. The University of Michigan Press, 1985. Print.

[vii] Simic, Charles. “The Toy of Language.” Giving Their Word: Conversations with Contemporary Poets. Steve Ratiner. University of Massachusets Press, Boston. 2002. Print.

[viii] Simic, Charles. “With George Starbuck.” The Uncertain Certainty. Ed. Donald Hall. The University of Michigan Press, 1985. Print.

[ix] Simic, Charles. “With Rod Steier.” The Uncertain Certainty. Ed. Donald Hall. The University of Michigan Press, 1985. Print.