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Life and Works

In brutally rough terms, Simic is a sort of Ashbery with roots and a sad childhood. "Originality" seems to be the word here. Both share a talent for irony, as well as a vague affinity for (some) surrealism, expressed in their attempts at erasing the dividing line between reality and fantasy, between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Simic seems to be in love with the bizarre, Ashbery with bizarring the everyday. In Simic's poetry a common device is the animation of the inanimate; it is put to best use in his grim parodies of contemporary life. In his own words, "truth [...] is not something that already exists in the world, but something that needs to be rediscovered almost daily." James Billington has produced a remarkably fortunate and synthetic account of his poetry: "The range of Charles Simic's imagination is evident in his stunning and unusual imagery. He handles language with the skill of a master craftsman, yet his poems are easily accessible, often meditative and surprising. He has given us a rich body of highly organized poetry with shades of darkness and flashes of ironic humor."

Charles Simic was born in 1938, in Belgrade, in what then was Yugoslavia, where he suffered World War II and the only marginally better postwar years.

In school, there were pictures of Tito, Stalin, and Lenin over every blackboard, watching us do our schoolwork. Our teachers told us daily that these were three wise men who were bringing happiness to children like us all over the world. I, myself, didn't know what to believe. At home, I was told they were bad men who were responsible for my father being away.

He did not escape Eastern Europe until age 15, when his family moved to Paris in 1954. There he learned both French and English.

We spent a year in Paris living in a small hotel room, surviving on money that my father sent from the United States. We had no idea how long it would take to get our visas. In the meantime, we roamed the city on foot, went to movies and studied English. My mother bought us LIFE, LOOK, and other American magazines where my brother and I studied women in bathing suits, new model cars, and refrigerators packed with food. It was while at school in Paris, however, that I first got interested in poetry. We had to memorize poems by Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud and recite them in front of the class. You can imagine what a nightmare that was for me with my accent. Still, those poems brought tears to my eyes.

One year later, his family reached Chicago via New York and settled there, where his literary interest finally flourished as the result of a more encouraging and supportive academic environment. America was also the land of jazz, another early passion of his. By 1959 he had already published his first poems. But shortly afterwards he was drafted into the army and could not graduate from New York University until 1966. In 1967 his first proper collection--What the Grass Says--appeared. It was followed by as many as twenty poetry books including The World Doesn't End: Prose Poems (1990), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. This Pulitzer for a book of prose poems is truly an exceptional achievement, and one that has caused a few frowns in the poetry scene. Other honors and distinctions range from fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, to the 2007 Wallace Stevens Award by the Academy of American Poets. At present, Simic is Emeritus Professor of the University of New Hampshire where he has taught since 1973.

SIMIC: Well, at first my secret ambition was to be a painter.

MARK FORD: What kind of painter were you?

SIMIC: I started out when I was fifteen as a kind of Postimpressionist. Later on, I imitated Soutine, Vlaminck, and the German Expressionists. When I stopped painting around the age of thirty, I was an Abstract Expressionist, at times aping de Kooning, at times aping Guston. The truth is, I had little talent.

His early poetry abounds with European references: the (mostly rural) landscape, the traumatic resignation that marked his existential attitude toward modern life, the irony necessary to cope with such a childhood...all suggest the burden of a postwar youth put to greatly creative use in the form of inventive and original poetry. But this poetry has also been praised for its thorough Americanness: the language is unmistakeably American, and so are the first-person accounts of experience, which recall the long tradition linking Whitman's and O'Hara's. His poetry covers a remarkably wide range of tones and registers. It can be grimly realistic at times, and when it gets dark, it resembles a mixture of Kafka and Hitchcock, but there is always room for the somewhat coolly detached and wittily visual, as in "Watermelons":

Green Buddhas
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.

This visual impulse is also present, in a much more interesting way, in his animation of the inanimate, which has led to "some of the most strikingly original poetry of our time, a poetry shockingly stark in its concepts, imagery, and language" (Victor Contoski in Chicago Review). Even richer in suggestion are his (Giorgio) de Chirico-inspired and (Joseph) Cornell-inspired pieces. There we can see the extreme kinship between the two artists, and Simic's choice reveals this profound connection while achieving a shocking aesthetic impact. The collagist technique foregrounds the uncanniness of mannequins/automata, the solitude, the existential vacuum. His is a pessimism with a wink and a somber smile that suggests either a backup plan or a resignation acquired through years of survival (of the sort of "I've been through worse things and I'm still standing"). This originality has brought him an enviable reputation as a poet, but also a few thoroughly bad reviews. On the most notorious of these he has commented in an interview in Cortland Review:

J.M. SPALDING: I know that Paul Breslin's review of Walking the Black Cat must make you gag. Is there anything you would like to say--in your defense or punitively--in response?

SIMIC: I would consider myself a total failure in life if Paul Breslin or someone like William Logan admired my work. Everything I have ever done as a poet was done in contempt of what he regards as "good" poetry. A man without a trace of imagination or original ideas, Breslin is the incarnation of smug, academic mediocrity. He is as close to understanding poetry as Lawrence Welk is to playing jazz.

 

In formal terms, his originality is a doubly fascinating phenomenon, as it does not rely on any sort of formal transgression, unless common everyday English is transgressive nowadays, which is not such a wild thing to say after all. The language remains plain and natural in all its refreshing simplicity: "He seems to challenge himself to write as plainly as possible, while still producing works of freshness and originality" (Michael Milburn, New Letters Review of Books). Everyday English for everyday objects.

 

Autor:Ernesto Suárez Toste (Universidad de Castilla la Mancha)