Orphan of Silence: Charles Simic
My first encounter with Charles Simic's work wasn't
an introduction to the person. Prior to that encounter, his name seemed
to be something that breathed and moved on its own—popping up
in conversations with other writers, and making its appearances in various
journals. It is also emblazoned on the spines of numerous collections
His first poems were published in 1959, when he was
21. His first full-length collection of poems, What the Grass Says,
was published the following year. Since then he has published more than
sixty books in the US and abroad, twenty titles of his own poetry among
them. His poetry collections include That Little Something (2008),
My Noiseless Entourage (2005), and Selected Poems: 1963-2003
(2004), among others.
Simic is a recipient of several honors that include
the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990, a finalist for the National Book
Award in 1996, a Griffin Prize in 2005, and he was the 15th US Poet
Simic reading at the National Book Festival.
photo credit: Library of Congress
I would later learn that Simic was born on May 9, 1938,
in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. The 71-year-old is also an essayist, translator,
editor and professor emeritus of creative writing and literature at
the University of New Hampshire, where he has taught for 34 years.
One might think, with Simic being such a prominent literary
figure, that I should have come to his work much sooner than 2009. But
the late Nobel Prize winner Albert Szent-Gyoryi defined
discovery as an accident meeting a prepared mind. At the time of my
accidental meeting with Simic's work, I was browsing online journals,
looking for places to submit my work when I came across Simic's poem,
"Doubles," and was hooked.
Simic's "deliberately simple structure and diction
in his poems" as a way of presenting difficult subject matter is
widely praised by critics. Among them was Librarian of Congress James
Billington who described Simic's work as a collection of "stunning
and unusual imagery": "He handles language with the skill
of a master craftsman, yet his poems are easily accessible, often meditative
In "Doubles," the idea of humans "inhabited
by an inner family of selves," or having multiple personalities,
is made accessible through his use of plain language. Through most of
the poem, it's clear that the speaker and the doubles are separate individuals.
What Billington cited as the "flashes of ironic humor" in
Simic's work starts with the fifth line of the second stanza to the
end, when the doubles become the speaker's "many selves":
The last time anyone saw me alive;
I was either wearing dark glasses
And reading the Bible on the subway,
Or crossing the street and laughing to myself.
Another example of Simic's "ironic humor"
is in his poem, "Eyes Fastened With Pins." Defying easy categorization,
some of his poems offer a surreal and metaphysical reflection while
others offer grimly realistic portraits of violence and despair. Vernon
Young, a Hudson Review contributor, noted that the
common source of Simic's poetry was memory:
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. Within microcosmic verses which may
be impish, sardonic, quasirealistic or utterly outrageous, he succinctly
implies an historical montage. 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.
Simic once said, "Poetry is an orphan of silence.
The words never quite equal the experience behind them." Those
experiences include his formative years spent in Belgrade. His family
evacuated their home several times to escape indiscriminate bombing.
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 a 1998 interview, Simic told the Cortland Review
how those experiences affected his writing:
"Being one of the millions of displaced persons
made an impression on me. In addition to my own little story of bad
luck, I heard plenty of others. I'm still amazed by all the vileness
and stupidity I witnessed in my life."
When he turned 15, Simic's mother arranged for the family
to travel to Paris. He spent a year there studying English in night
school and attending French public schools during the day. Simic, along
with his mother and brother, sailed for America and reunited with his
father in the Oak Park suburb of Chicago, where he enrolled in high
school. They lived there until 1958. Three years after, he was drafted
into the US Army, and in 1966 he earned his Bachelor's degree from New
York University while working at night to cover the costs of tuition.
While Simic feels "the words never quite equal
the experience behind them," Tim Green, editor
of Rattle, noted that poetry not only allows the reader to
step into the poet's shoes but also the poet's body, mind, and moment
in time. Green went as far as to define the craft as "an art of
ventriloquism." In that case, Simic and his readers work "symbiotically
to create an acoustic and linguistic experience" every time his
poems are read.
Eric Williams, an Artful Dodge
contributor, observed the narrative thread that binds the images together
in Simic's work. He noted that the readers are hit with "a dazzling
series of loosely connected images." Often times the final line
of Simic's poems connect everything.
The Antioch Review's Diana Engelmann
noted the "dual voice" of Simic's poetry that speaks both
as an American and as an exile:
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. 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.
Simic discussed his creative process in an interview
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.
Further Reading Online
Charles Simic Bibliography
What the Grass Says, 1967
Somewhere Among Us a Stone is Taking Notes, 1969
Dismantling the Silence, 1971
Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk, 1974
Charon's Cosmology, 1977
School for Dark Thoughts, 1978
Classic Ballroom Dances, 1980
Weather Forecast for Utopia & Vicinity: Poems 1967-1982,
Unending Blues, 1986
The World Doesn't End: Prose Poems, 1989
The Book of Gods and Devils, 1990
Hotel Insomnia, 1992
Dime-Store Alchemy, The Art of Joseph Cornell, 1993
A Wedding in Hell, 1994
Walking the Black Cat, 1996
Night Picnic, 2001
A Fly in the Soup:
The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected Late and New Poems, 2003
Selected Poems, 1963-2003, 2004
My Noiseless Entourage, 2005
Aunt Lettuce, I want to Peek Under Your Skirt, 2005
Monkey Around, 2006
Sixty Poems, 2008
That Little Something, 2008
Monster Loves His Labyrinth, 2008
is a Cave Canem fellow and Vona Alum. His fiction and poems have appeared
in the Arabesques Review, Warpland, The Amistad,
and Fingernails Across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS.
Published in Volume 10.4, Fall 2009
Read more by this author:
King on Karibu Books: Literary Organizations