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Charles Simic: “You must work to captivate the reader.”

By: Dr. Pragya Suman


Great surrealist poet Charles Simic ( b.1938 ) is no more. He died on 9 February 2023, and literary lovers are rolling this sad news on social media. My early reading goes on with the curiosity of his prose poetry book, The World Doesn’t End, which won the grace of being the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize in the prose poetry genre. One of my favourite poems is I am the last Napoleonic soldier.

I am the last Napoleonic soldier. It’s almost two hundred years later and I am still retreating from Moscow. The road is lined with white birch trees and the mud comes up to my knees. The one-eyed woman wants to sell me a chicken, and I don’t even have any clothes on. The Germans are going one way; I am going the other. The Russians are going still another way and waving goodbye. I have a ceremonial saber. I use it to cut my hair, which is four feet long.

Napoleon, Hitler and one-eyed woman, a fork resembling a bird's foot, three fingered waiter, sea cucumber, these absurd metaphors could be invented only by Simic. For him history is coagulated in a cluttered hole, but everything is lined and arranged. Amid contrast, absurd history is somersaulting in the reverse mode tucked with surrealist wings. 

Simic belonged to a Serbian-American heritage and was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1938, and immigrated to the United States in 1953 via a short detour,(one year) in France  at the age of 15. He grew up during the second world war in a captured and bombed city in Europe.His prose writings in The New York Review of Books and poetry, both are two different kinds of writings. He wrote precisely and presciently about American politics, culture and society in his columns, while in verse writings he avoids giving any message, didactic poetry was not meant for him. Simic’s poem haunts in dark vision, hiding a both daring and fearsome child, which in contrast sprouted in a kind of surrealism and absurdity. 

He famously quoted “The idea that poets should or must respond to events is absurd. If the world is collapsing, and poets write a poem about their dog, or the landscape, and it’s a good work, that’s all I want from them.”

Charles was insomniac and in an interview with Florida Review he has admitted that it runs downs in his family. An interesting note about how insomnia could be undertow of churning poetry, we can see in the background of the theme poem of the book Scribbled in the Dark. One summer night, late Simic was in a village apartment, he heard shrieks in the street about 3AM, and wondered, was it joy or fear?He got up and looked at the street because it was dark. A fight went on between the idea of turning on or off the light and to give the insomnia a backdrop, simic scribbled in the dark, light remained turned off. He couldn’t wait for the sun to rise, lest he forgot about the idea. 

His war experiences, bombs falling all around in his childhood, and the fear they would fall on head,  stuck to his soul and though he migrated to the USA that brutal pricks never left him, inkpot spilled over in dark humor on the paper and the whole work of Simic seems a specialization in tragicomedy. Simic was more fascinated with the commonalities than experiences and emphasized sayings should be expressed in an interesting way.

“You can't say it in the same old way.  You must work to captivate the reader.”

Thematic poetry and dark, cold and melancholic metaphors are tools on which stories are stuck, Simic’s pen liberates them in an interesting way, the story shared between two, poet and reader, is ocean-like, condensed in free flowing brook. The small verses after thawing makes them alive without any trace of congestion. His poems are easily graspable, often mediative and thought provoking. That is the magic of Charles Simic.

The critic Helen Vendler, has described Simic as a “lover of food who has been instructed in starvation.” A serious surrealist lost belief in the absolutist thought in his early age and this deep distrust instilled in his writings. Each lost thing leaves behind a hollow scar. Simic’s whole writing is nothing but an effort to make that hollow healing in a teeming perch with juxtaposition of unlikely things. In only Simic’s poetry we see 

“dog barking at the moon.”

“cabbage symbolizes mysterious love”

He could write about the common things, in the simplest way but he couldn’t be taken for granted for his simplicity; for him a short poem means “be brief and tell everything.”

Simic talks about the fear of a simulacrum, he says—

Everyone whose eyes I sought avoided mine.

Was I beginning to resemble him a little?

In his poem War, he recalls—

The trembling finger of a woman

Goes down the list of casualties

On the evening of the first snow.

The house is cold and the list is long.

All our names are included.

His own family life was so tortured and broken that sometimes he saw war as escape and in his own words “Hitler and Stalin were travel agents for me.” His parents had fallen apart and the boy seeked relief in art and girls. To charm and attract girls he started to write poetry. When he was asked “why he didn’t write poetry in his native language serbian, he replied— it was difficult to allure American girls with a foreign language, so he started writing in english.

A poet, essayist and translator, Simic was honored with the Frost Medal, the Wallace  Stevens Award, a Pulitzer prize, two PEN awards for his work as a translator, etc. He was  fifteenth poet laureate of the USA, co-editor of The Paris Review and taught at the University of New Hampshire. 

“The wind has died” is the last poem of Charles Simic’s last book “No Land in Sight.”


My little boat

Take care

There is no

Land in sight.

Dr Pragya Suman

This article was published in Indian Periodical Journal.

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