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Monday, Jun 5, 2023

Charles Simic's Life Peppered by Poetry and a Pulitzer Prize

Author: Claire Bourne

"I had to recite divine verses in poor French in front of my class," recalled Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic in reference to the year he spent in the French school system following his departure from Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1953.

While visiting D. E. Axinn Professor of Creative Writing Jay Parini's advanced poetry workshop last Thursday, Simic explained that memorizing poems by Baudelaire, Hugo, Verlaine, Rimbaud and Apollinaire "had a big impact" on his formation as a poet. "I didn't realize it at the time," he admitted. "I hated it."

Five years later, at the age of 21, Simic's first poems appeared in various poetry magazines, and in 1966, after earning a bachelor's degree from New York University, his first full-length collection of poems, "What the Grass Says," was published.

Simic's road to recognition as, in Parini's words, "one of the finest American poets writing today," was not smooth and straight. "I can't think of anybody who said, 'I see a great future before you,'" he said, pointing out that writing workshops, such as Parini's, did not exist when he was in school.

He began writing poetry in his last semester of high school after noticing that his friends were attracting the best looking girls by authoring "sappy" love poems. More interested in painting than in poetry in secondary school, Simic joked, "You can't lug a painting to a date. [Writing poetry] was practical."

His hobby soon transformed into a full-fledged passion. "It continues to be an obsession," he explained. "I have no choice in the matter." He showed his work to friends, often receiving "direct and negative" criticism. "It was shocking," he remembered, "but the terrible thing was I kind of half-agreed sometimes."

Just out of high school and eager to get his voice heard, Simic submitted myriad poems to literary magazines. Most were returned with letters of rejection. "Many writers can wallpaper their houses with rejection letters," he said. "Little by little, the magazines began to take my work, and a few compliments snuck in."

Simic has published more than 60 books in the United States and abroad, including "The World Doesn't End: Prose Poems," for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990, and "Night Picnic," his most recent collection.

He said that, for him, writing poetry was "like any human endeavor. I'm going to die sooner or later, but I get up every morning and put my shoes on."

His writing process has changed since he first embarked on his journey as a poet. Young poets, he noted, talk about the moment of inspiration that forces them to scrawl their emotions on a blank sheet of paper. "It is beautiful and fantastic at that instant," he remarked, "and then in the morning you realize that it is awful."

Describing the "endless" drafts and notebooks that line the bookshelves in his home, Simic pulled a tiny black notebook from his breast pocket in which he keeps "jottings" about certain striking moods and images. "I don't have the sense of sitting down to write anything," he explained. "You need one strong, sharp image. One that is so strong that you can't run from it and you are forced to ask yourself, 'Why this?'" Once he reaches this stage, he continued, he realizes that he has "no choice" and that the image "has to become something."

This approach to writing still baffles him, he confessed. "There is no clear explanation why something not another thing becomes a poem," he said.

Despite having garnered countless awards and positive reviews of his work, Simic revealed that he does not "have great insight into [his] own work. I can't tell the better things from others."

He does, however, have clear-cut criteria for what makes a poem memorable. "A great poem," he affirmed, "is an endless source of mystery and inexhaustible to reverie. When you finish a poem, you want to read it again, it is a great poem."

Readers' desire to pick up Simic's poems again and again has placed him at the forefront of contemporary American poetry. The overwhelming crowd at his Thursday afternoon reading in Le Grand Salon at Chateau was a testament to his popularity.

"Simic's imagery cuts deep into the reader's psyche," Parini explained. "He's a true and terrifying poet, but he's also very funny. In fact, the comic edge often plays off the tragic in his work. He brings to the page a peculiar and fascinating mind."