Charles Simic

Charles Simic – Laureate of the Zbigniew Herbert Literary Award 2014

Charles Simic (Dušan Simić) was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia on May 9th 1938.

His earliest childhood recollections go back to World War II, bombings, and the German occupation of his home town. Fearing communist repressions Simic’s father, fled to Italy, from where he emigrated to the United States. In 1953 his wife managed to obtain permission for the rest of the family to leave Yugoslavia, which was how age 15 Simic found himself in Paris, and a year later journeyed to America and – after a short sojourn in New York – settled with his father in Chicago.

He published his poems (written in English from the beginning) as early as the late 50s, though the first volume of his poems „What the Grass Says” did not appear in print until 1967. In his works Simic manages to achieve a unique combination of surreal imagination (enabling him, for example, to discover the hidden life of such objects as a spoon or fork), sensitivity for the odd, the world’s obscure nature, intensive irony and a brilliant sense of humour, that remembers historical events, affection towards his fellow man, lucidly expressed. All at once of a realistic description of the realities of an American existence steeped in an East European inheritance imbued with terror and violence. As his Polish translator Stanisław Barańczak wrote “many of Simic’s poems, in the pictorial or thematic sphere could not have been born, had they not been called to life by a concrete American reality that represents but one side of an inventiveness that permeates all his creative output based on opposites. The other side composed of works born from an East European context, of our hero’s childhood of war and occupation. The specific character, originality, intelligence, wit and force of expression of Simic’s poetry are pre-eminently determined by reference to the realities of America and Eastern Europe that “do not speak separately but in a mutual union”, born of “an American consciousness and an East European sub consciousness”.

In an interview given to Cracow’s weekly «Tygodnik Powszechny» in 2011 Sam Simic himself admitted „I love mixtures of tragedy and comedy, for their collision gives rise to a true picture of the human condition. We continually hear about people who believe that a poem that brings mirth is of a mediocre sort. They think – how erroneously – that to be serious and prudent requires the avoidance of mirth as of the greatest evil. Meanwhile I love poems that bring together supposedly unrelated objects, poems reminiscent of the theatre of the absurd, that approach poetic feelings and lofty rhetoric with suspicion. I deliberately ignore them. When the reader expects paper flowers and artificial fruits, I give him a plate full of sausages and pickles”.

In the same interview he commented on poets involvement in ongoing political events „I have become acquainted with many authors fascinated by politics, and yet never ready to confront contemporary events in their work. I don’t understand. Having grown up in a Belgrade engulfed by war means that I cannot even imagine a situation in which an ongoing military conflict, occupation or even everyday political confrontation falls beyond the limits of my attention”.

Simic’s dazzling career began in the 1970s. Today – according to Michael Kruger, Herbert Award Juror, German poet and publisher – „Charles Simic is now considered as one of the finest poets in America and in the whole world. His poetry is a highly poetical, ironic, laconic commentary on our world of antagonisms.”

In the cited «Tygodnik Powszechny» interview Simic stated that „My East European education for a long time evolved and developed under the influence of historical events, these last 60 years. During that time many of my former premonitions were proved accurate. I will give you one example. Since I was eight years old I’ve known that overwhelmingly innocent people die during a war…”

Eminent essayist as well as author of numerous notable autobiographical texts (Polish language selection in „Madonny z dorysowaną szpicbródką”…), Simic is a regular contributor to «The New York Review of Books». Several articles were dedicated to the work of Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Adam Zagajewski and other Polish poets. He is also the author of the preface to the American edition of Zbigniew Herbert’s „The Collected Prose” translated by Alissa Valles (2010).

Edward Hirsch, American poet and Herbert Award Juror points out that Simic „specializes in tragicomedy similarly to Zbigniew Herbert. Simic has a keen historical awareness, a sardonic sense of humor, and a powerful consciousness of human tragedy. He speaks out against human venality. His way of attacking a poem has inspired poets world-wide. He also inspires readers because he reminds people of their humanity.”

Michael Kruger also notes that “Simic’s essays on poetry are not only a solid chronicle of modern poetry, but also a reservoir of arguments on the question of why poetry still matters.”

In an interview Simic gave the «Paris Review» he also explained that “There’s no preparation for poetry. Four years of grave digging with a nice volume of poetry or a book of philosophy in one’s pocket would serve as well as any university.”

Whilst he himself writes, to “annoy God, to make Death laugh. I write because I can’t get it right. I write because I want every woman in the world to fall in love with me…”

As a translator Simic introduced Balkan poets into America’s literary world such as Vasko Popa or Tomaž Šalamun, whilst also, amongst others, initiating an anthology of contemporary Serbian poetry in „Horse Has Six Legs” (1992).

Simic has also been managed to amass the most prestigious artistic distinctions, such as the Ingram Merrill Foundation Fellowship, MacArthur Fellowship, Wallace Stevens Award, Frost Medal and the International Griffin Poetry Prize, as well as the Pulitzer Prize, and title of Poet Laureate of the United States of America.

Finally Simic is a great fan and noted expert of jazz and the blues. He lectured on Literature and Creative Writing at the University of New Hampshire, at which he is presently a Professor Emeritus. He lives on the East Coast in Strafford, New Hampshire.

A volume of his works has appeared in Polish „Madonny z dorysowaną szpicbródką oraz inne wiersze, prozy poetyckie i eseje” selected and edited by Stanisław Barańczak (Published by Wydawnictwo a5, Poznań 1992).

Andrzej Franaszek, literary critic and Zbigniew Herbert Award Secretary, believes that “in recent years, after the deaths of Herbert, Miłosz and Szymborska, and Stanisław Barańczak’s silence, and publications very occasionally coming out from Ryszard Krynicki Polish poetry has largely moved under the standard of a poetry avant-garde, concentrated uniquely on language. This most often leads to a dead end, loss of contact with the reader; poetry condemned to an elite milieu and academic ghetto. I am delighted, that by choosing Charles Simic, the Award Jury effectively reminds us that even today it is possible, through poetry, to promote the values that half-a-century ago Zbigniew Herbert described as “Selflessness, the ability to contemplate, the vision of a paradise lost, goodness, a certain mixture of despair and humour…”

Charles Simic has, amongst others, published a volume of poetry…

1967: „What the Grass Says”
1969: „Somewhere among Us a Stone is Taking Notes”
1971: „Dismantling the Silence”
1972: „White”
1974: „Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk”
1976: „Biography and a Lament”
1977: „Charon’s Cosmology”
1978: „Brooms: Selected Poems”
1978: „School for Dark Thoughts”
1980: „Classic Ballroom Dances”
1982: „Austerities”
1983: „Weather Forecast for Utopia and Vicinity”
1985: „Selected Poems, 1963–1983”
1986: „Unending Blues”
1989: „Nine Poems”
1989: „The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems”
1990: „The Book of Gods and Devils”
1992: „Hotel Insomnia”
1994: „A Wedding in Hell: Poems”
1995: „Frightening Toys”
1996: „Walking the Black Cat: Poems”
1999: „Jackstraws: Poems”
2001: „Night Picnic”
2003: „The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected Late and New Poems”
2004: „Selected Poems: 1963–2003”
2005: „Aunt Lettuce, I Want to Peek under Your Skirt”
2005: „My Noiseless Entourage: Poems”
2006: „Monkey Around”
2008: „60 Poems”
2008: „That Little Something: Poems”
2008: „Monster Loves His Labyrinth”
2008: „Army: Memoir. In preparation”
2010: „Master of Disguises”
2013: „New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012”

…as well as prose

1985: „The Uncertain Certainty: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry”
1990: „Wonderful Words, Silent Truth”
1992: „Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell”
1994: „The Unemployed Fortune-Teller: Essays and Memoirs”
1997: „Orphan Factory: Essays and Memoirs”
2000: „A Fly in the Soup: Memoirs”
2003: „The Metaphysician in the Dark”
2008: „The Renegade”