Simic, Charles 1938–
Simic, Charles 1938–
PERSONAL: Born May 9, 1938, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia; immigrated to the United States, 1954, naturalized citizen, 1971; son of George (an engineer) and Helen (Matijevic) Simic; married Helene Dubin (a designer), October 25, 1965; children: Anna, Philip. Education: New York University, B.A., 1967. Religion: Eastern Orthodox.
ADDRESSES: Home—P.O. Box 192, Strafford, NH 03884-0192. Office—Department of English, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH 03824.
CAREER: Poet and educator. Aperture (photography magazine), New York, NY, editorial assistant, 1966–69; University of New Hampshire, Durham, associate professor of English, 1973–. Visiting assistant professor of English, State University of California, Hayward, 1970–73, Boston University, 1975, and Columbia University, 1979. Military service: U.S. Army, 1961–63.
AWARDS, HONORS: PEN International Award for translation, 1970; Guggenheim fellowship, 1972–73; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1974–75, and 1979–80; Edgar Allan Poe Award from American Academy of Poets, 1975; National Institute of Arts and Letters and American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, 1976; National Book Award nomination, 1978, for Charon's Cosmology; Harriet Monroe Poetry Award from University of Chicago, Di Castignola Award from Poetry Society of America, 1980, and PEN translation award, all 1980; Fulbright traveling fellowship, 1982; Ingram Merrill fellowship, 1983–84; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1984–89; Pulitzer Prize nominations, 1986 and 1987; Pulitzer Prize, 1990, for The World Doesn't End; National Book Award finalist in poetry, 1996, for Walking the Black Cat; nominated for the National Book Award for poetry and for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for poetry, both 2003, both for The Voice at 3:00 a.m.: Selected Late and New Poems.
What the Grass Says, Kayak (San Francisco, CA), 1967.
Somewhere among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes, Kayak (San Francisco, CA), 1969.
Dismantling the Silence, Braziller (New York, NY), 1971.
White, New Rivers Press, 1972, revised edition, Log-bridge Rhodes (Durango, CO), 1980.
Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk, Braziller (New York, NY), 1974.
Biography and a Lament, Bartholemew's Cobble (Hartford, CT), 1976.
Charon's Cosmology, Braziller (New York, NY), 1977.
Brooms: Selected Poems, Edge Press (Christchurch, NZ), 1978.
School for Dark Thoughts, Banyan Press (Pawlet, VT), 1978, sound recording of same title published by Watershed Tapes (Washington, DC), 1978.
Classic Ballroom Dances, Braziller (New York, NY), 1980.
Austerities, Braziller (New York, NY), 1982.
Weather Forecast for Utopia and Vicinity, Station Hill Press (Barrytown, NY), 1983.
Selected Poems, 1963–1983, Braziller (New York, NY), 1985.
Unending Blues, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1986.
Nine Poems, Exact Change (Cambridge, MA), 1989.
The World Doesn't End, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1989.
The Book of Gods and Devils, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1990.
Hotel Insomnia, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1992.
A Wedding in Hell: Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1994.
Frightening Toys, Faber & Faber (New York, NY), 1995.
Walking the Black Cat: Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1996.
Jackstraws: Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1999, revised edition, Faber & Faber (New York, NY), 2000.
Selected Early Poems, Braziller (New York, NY), 2000.
Night Picnic, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2001.
The Voice at 3:00 a.m.: Selected Late and New Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2003.
Aunt Lettuce, I Want to Peek under Your Skirt, Blooms-bury USA (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor of poetry to more than one hundred magazines, including New Yorker, Poetry, Nation, Kayak, Atlantic, Esquire, Chicago Review, New Republic, American Poetry Review, Paris Review, and Harvard Magazine.
Ivan V. Lalic, Fire Gardens, New Rivers Press (Moorhead, MN), 1970.
Vasko Popa, The Little Box: Poems, Charioteer Press (Washington, DC), 1970.
Four Modern Yugoslav Poets: Ivan V. Lalic, Branko Miljkovic, Milorad Pavic, Ljubomir Simovic, Lillabulero (Ithaca, NY), 1970.
(And editor, with Mark Strand) Another Republic: Seventeen European and South American Writers, Viking (New York, NY), 1976.
Vasko Popa, Homage to the Lame Wolf: Selected Poems, Field (Oberlin, OH), 1979.
(With Peter Kastmiler) Slavko Mihalic, Atlantis, Greenfield Review Press (Greenfield Center, NY), 1983.
Tomaz Salamun, Selected Poems, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.
Ivan V. Lalic, Roll Call of Mirrors, Wesleyan University Press, 1987.
Aleksandar Ristovic, Some Other Wine or Light, Charioteer Press (Washington, DC), 1989.
Stavko Janevski, Bandit Wind, Dryad Press (College Park, MD), 1991.
Novica Tadic, Night Mail: Selected Poems, Oberlin College Press (Oberlin, OH), 1992.
Horse Has Six Legs: Contemporary Serbian Poetry, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 1992.
Aleksander Ristovic, Devil's Lunch, Faber & Faber (New York, NY), 1999.
Radmila Lazic, A Wake for the Living, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2003.
Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, Ecco (New York, NY), 1992.
The Unemployed Fortune-Teller: Essays and Memoirs, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1994.
Orphan Factory: Essays and Memoirs, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1997.
A Fly in the Soup: Memoirs, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2000.
Metaphysician in the Dark (essays), University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2003.
(Editor, with Don Paterson) New British Poetry, Gray-wolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2004.
Simic's works have been translated into several languages, including French, Dutch, Macedonian, Norwegian, Polish, Spanish, and German.
Contributor to anthologies, including Young American Poets, Follett, 1968; Contemporary American Poets, World Publishing, 1969; Major Young American Poets, World Publishing, 1971; America a Prophesy, Random House, 1973; Shake the Kaleidoscope: A New Anthology of Modern Poetry, Pocket Books, 1973; The New Naked Poetry, Bobbs-Merrill, 1976; The American Poetry Anthology, Avon, 1976; A Geography of Poets, Bantam, 1979; Contemporary American Poetry, 1950–1980, Longman, 1983; The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Norton, 1983; Harvard Book of American Poetry, Harvard University Press, 1985; and The Harper American Literature, Volume 2, Harper, 1987. Author of introductions, Homage to a Cat: As It Were: Logscapes of the Lost Ages, by Vernon Newton, Northern Lights, 1991, and Prisoners of Freedom: Contemporary Slovenian Poetry, edited by Ales Debeljak, Pedernal, 1992.
SIDELIGHTS: Charles Simic, a native of Yugoslavia who immigrated to the United States during his teens, has been hailed as one of his adopted homeland's finest poets. Simic's work, which includes Unending Blues, Walking the Black Cat, and Hotel Insomnia, has won numerous awards, among them the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the coveted MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." Although he writes in English, Simic draws upon his own experiences of war-torn Belgrade to compose poems about the physical and spiritual poverty of modern life. Hudson Review contributor Liam Rector noted that the author's work "has about it a purity, an originality unmatched by many of his contemporaries."
The receipt of a Pulitzer Prize for The World Doesn't End may have widened Simic's audience, but the poet has never lacked admirers in the community of creative writers. In the Chicago Review, Victor Contoski characterized Simic's work as "some of the most strikingly original poetry of our time, a poetry shockingly stark in its concepts, imagery, and language." Georgia Review correspondent Peter Stitt wrote: "The fact that [Simic] spent his first eleven years surviving World War II as a resident of Eastern Europe makes him a going-away-from-home writer in an especially profound way…. He is one of the wisest poets of his generation, and one of the best." In a piece for the New Boston Review, Robert Shaw concluded that Simic "is remarkably successful at drawing the reader into his own creative moment."
Simic spent his formative years in Belgrade. His early childhood coincided with World War II; several times his family evacuated their home to escape indiscriminate bombing—or as he put it in an online interview for Cortland Review, "My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin." The atmosphere of violence and desperation continued after the war. Simic's father left the country for work in Italy, and his mother tried several times to follow, only to be turned back by authorities. In the meantime, young Simic was growing up in Belgrade, where he was considered a below-average student and a minor troublemaker.
When Simic was fifteen, his mother finally arranged for the family to travel to Paris. After a year spent studying English in night school and attending French public schools during the day, Simic sailed for America and a reunion with his father. He entered the United States at New York City and then moved with his family to Chicago, where he enrolled in high school. In a suburban school with caring teachers and motivated students, Simic began to take new interest in his courses, especially literature.
Simic also began to take a serious interest in poetry, though he admits that one reason he began exploring the art form was to meet girls. Talking on the Artful Dodge home page, Simic compared his nascent interest in poetry to another early passion, jazz: "It's a music I've loved from the first time I heard it…. There was an American Armed Forces station in Italy and you could pick it up. And I remember my mother and I had a terrific, old German radio; it was a huge thing and I was playing with the dial, and I heard something and I wanted to figure out what the hell it was. It was Big Band music, a kind of bluesy thing…. I remember instantly liking it. I had no idea what it was."
Simic's first poems were published in 1959, when he was twenty-one. He also confesses that he started a novel at age twenty, a decision he has lived to regret: "You've got to be really stupid to start writing a novel at twenty," he told Artful Dodge. "I remember I wrote out a plot, to page 55. Then I ran out of ideas."
Between that year and 1961, when he entered the service, he churned out a number of poems, most of which he has since destroyed. Simic finally earned his bachelor's degree in 1966. His first full-length collection of poems, What the Grass Says, was published the following year. In a very short time, Simic's work, including both original poetry in English and translations of important Yugoslavian poets, began to attract critical attention. In The American Moment: American Poetry in the Mid-Century, Geoffrey Thurley noted that the substance of Simic's earliest verse—its material referents—"are European and rural rather than American and urban…. The world his poetry creates—or rather with its brilliant semantic evacuation decreates—is that of central Europe—woods, ponds, peasant furniture." Voice Literary Supplement reviewer Matthew Flamm also contended that Simic was writing "about bewilderment, about being part of history's comedy act, in which he grew up half-abandoned in Belgrade and then became, with his Slavic accent, an American poet."
Simic's work defies easy categorization. Some poems reflect a surreal, metaphysical bent and others offer grimly realistic portraits of violence and despair. Hudson Review contributor Vernon Young maintained that memory—a taproot deep into European folklore—is the common source of all of Simic's poetry. "Simic, a graduate of NYU, married and a father in pragmatic America, turns, when he composes poems, to his unconscious and to earlier pools of memory," the critic wrote. "Within microcosmic verses which may be impish, sardonic, quasirealistic or utterly outrageous, he succinctly implies an historical montage." Young elaborated: "His Yugoslavia is a peninsula of the mind…. He speaks by the fable; his method is to transpose historical actuality into a surreal key…. [Simic] feels the European yesterday on his pulses."
Some of Simic's best-known works challenge the dividing line between the ordinary and extraordinary. He gives substance and even life to inanimate objects, discerning the strangeness in household items as ordinary as a knife or a spoon. Shaw wrote in the New Republic that the most striking perception of the author's early poems was that "inanimate objects pursue a life of their own and present, at times, a dark parody of human existence." Chicago Review contributor Victor Contoski concluded: "Simic's efforts to interpret the relationship between the animate and inanimate have led to some of the most strikingly original poetry of our time, a poetry shockingly stark in its concepts, imagery, and language." As Anthony Libby put it in the New York Times Book Review, Simic "takes us to his mysterious target, the other world concealed in this one."
Childhood experiences of war, poverty, and hunger lie behind a number of Simic's poems. Georgia Review correspondent Peter Stitt claimed that the poet's most persistent concern "is with the effect of cruel political structures upon ordinary human life…. The world of Simic's poems is frightening, mysterious, hostile, dangerous." Thurley also declared that Simic "creates a world of silence, waiting for the unspeakable to happen, or subsisting in the limbo left afterwards…. The dimension of menace in Simic becomes metaphysics in itself." Simic tempers this perception of horror with gallows humor and an ironic self-awareness. Stitt averred: "Even the most somber poems … exhibit a liveliness of style and imagination that seems to recreate, before our eyes, the possibility of light upon the earth. Perhaps a better way of expressing this would be to say that Simic counters the darkness of political structures with the sanctifying light of art."
Critics find Simic's style particularly accessible, a substantial achievement for an author for whom English is a second language. According to Shaw, the "exile's consciousness still colors [Simic's] language as well as his view of existence. Having mastered a second language, Simic is especially aware of the power of words, and of the limits which words grope to overcome. His diction is resolutely plain: as with the everyday objects he writes about, he uncovers unexpected depth in apparently commonplace language." In the New Letters Review of Books, Michael Milburn remarked: "Charles Simic is a poet of original vision…. Simic practically taunts the reader with a familiarity bordering on cliche. He seems to challenge himself to write as plainly as possible, while still producing works of freshness and originality. [His works] literally beckon us off the street and into a world that at first looks indistinguishable from our own…. But a brilliant method lies be-hind Simic's plainness…. Casual, unobtrusive language expresses the most fantastic images." Milburn added that the poet "mines ingredients of language and experience that readers may take for granted, and fuses them in a singular music."
Since 1973 Simic has taught English, creative writing, and criticism at the University of New Hampshire. He describes the New England environment as ripe for producing original thinkers because, as he said on Artful Dodge, "[there] are these states like Maine and New Hampshire filled with little out-of-the-way places which have winter for nine months. You discover that these poor children in these places have inner lives, an inwardness, because there is nothing else to do but scrutinize the self. Introspection is a big thing, even though now cable TV has come into New England."
At the same time, Simic has reached out to students in urban settings, places where poetry isn't assumed to be part of daily life. But the students in New York City slums, he says, "had absolutely no difficulty understanding poetry…. I was reading them Whitman. I was reading them Emily Dickinson. And this happened repeatedly. I found that these kids understood poetry much better than the kids in [upscale] Westchester." As opposed to the inner-city youths who accepted the poetry on its own terms, Simic notes, the suburban students, "if you gave them the simplest poem, would want to know what it 'means'…. They did not know how to read poetry."
In 1996 Simic published another poetry collection, Walking the Black Cat. In this work, a Publishers Weekly reviewer found the poet's "short, taut lines" carve "dark-edged images" in passages that present the black cat—a traditional symbol of bad luck—as a "constant, even loved, companion." On the other hand, Paul Breslin of Poetry had more to criticize: While the best passages in Black Cat "won't submit to their own glibness altogether … on the whole I have the sense of a style running on automatic pilot, the urgencies that once called it into existence largely forgotten." (Responding to such criticism, the poet remarked to J.M. Spalding in the Cortland Review: "I would consider myself a total failure in life if Paul Breslin admired my work. Everything I have ever done as a poet was done in contempt of what he regards as 'good' poetry.")
In addition to poetry and prose poems, Simic has also written several works of prose nonfiction, including 1992's Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell. A literary paean to one of the most innovative visual artists of the twentieth century, Simic's book highlights Cornell's work, which included minimalist sculptures using found objects to create intriguing surrealist collages, by creating verbal collages that are themselves composed of still smaller units of prose. "As in his poems, Simic's style in Dime-Store Alchemy is deceptively offhand and playful," noted Edward Hirsch in the New Yorker, "moving fluently between the frontal statement and the indirect suggestion, the ordinary and the metaphysical." Among Simic's essay collections is Orphan Factory. According to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, these essays and brief memoirs are at their best "when fragmentary and spontaneous ideas and images combine." The reviewer also praised the work for its "wisdom and humor."
The poetry collection The Voice at 3:00 a.m.: Selected Late and New Poems offers "oblique self-perceptions, metaphysical musings, inexplicable intimations and—not least—amorous affection," according to John Taylor of the Antioch Review. Donna Seaman of Booklist declared Simic a "unique and necessary voice in American poetry" whose "brooding lyrics are eloquently spare."
Diana Engelmann of the Antioch Review commented at length about Simic's poetry as being a dual voice that speaks both as an American and as an exile. She observed, "While it is true that the experiences of Charles Simic, the 'American poet,' provide a uniquely cohesive force in his verse, it is also true that the voices of the foreign and of the mother tongue memory still echo in many poems." Engelmann concluded, "Simic's poems convey the characteristic duality of exile: they are at once authentic statements of the contemporary American sensibility and vessels of internal translation, offering a passage to what is silent and foreign." Discussing his creative process, Simic commented on Artful Dodge: "When you start putting words on the page, an associative process takes over. And, all of a sudden, there are surprises. All of a sudden you say to yourself, 'My God, how did this come into your head? Why is this on the page?' I just simply go where it takes me."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 4, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 6, 1976, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 22, 1982, Volume 49, 1988, Volume 68, 1991.
Thurley, Geoffrey, The American Moment: American Poetry in the Mid-Century, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1978.
Weigl, Bruce, editor, Charles Simic: Essays on the Poetry, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1996.
America, January 13, 1996, p. 18.
Antioch Review, spring, 1977; John Taylor, review of The Voice at 3:00 a.m.: Selected Late and New Poems; winter, 2004, p. 176; winter, 2004, Diana Engelmann, "Speaking in Tongues: Exile and Internal Translation in the Poetry of Charles Simic," p. 44.
Booklist, October 1, 1997, review of Walking the Black Cat, p. 317; April 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of The Voice at 3:00 a.m., p. 1370.
Boston Review, March-April, 1981; April, 1986.
Chicago Review, Volume 48, number 4, 1977.
Choice, March, 1975.
Gargoyle, number 22-23, 1983.
Georgia Review, winter, 1976; summer, 1986.
Hudson Review, spring, 1981; autumn, 1986.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 16, 1986; December 7, 1986; December 27, 1992, pp. 1, 8.
New Boston Review, March-April, 1981.
New Letters Review of Books, spring, 1987.
New Republic, January 24, 1976; March 1, 1993, p. 28.
New Yorker, December 21, 1992, pp. 130-135; June 28, 1993, p. 74.
New York Times, May 28, 1990.
New York Times Book Review, March 5, 1978; October 12, 1980; May 1, 1983; January 12, 1986; October 18, 1987; March 21, 1993, pp. 14, 16; April 16, 2000, review of Selected Early Poems, p. 23.
People, May 5, 1997, review of Walking the Black Cat, p. 40.
Ploughshares, Volume 7, number 1, 1981.
Poet and Critic, Volume 9, number l, 1975.
Poetry, December, 1968; September, 1971; March, 1972; February, 1975; November, 1978; July, 1981; October, 1983; July, 1987; April, 1996, p. 33; July, 1997, review of Walking the Black Cat, p. 226.
Poetry Review, June, 1983.
Publishers Weekly, November 2, 1990; September 21, 1992, p. 78; August 25, 1997, review of Orphan Factory, p. 54.
Stand, summer, 1984.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 12, 1983.
Village Voice, April 4, 1974; February 28, 1984.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1975.
Voice Literary Supplement, December, 1986.
Washington Post, April 13, 1990.
Washington Post Book World, November 2, 1980; April 13, 1986; May 7, 1989; January 3, 1993, pp. 9-10.
Artful Dodge, http://www.wooster.edu/ (August 24, 2000).
Cortland Review, http://www.cortlandreview.com/ (August 24, 2000).