A tribute to the poet laureate, who has died at age 84
“I tinker with most of my poems even after publication. I expect to be revising in my coffin as it is being lowered into the ground,” Charles Simic once said in a wide-ranging interview published in the Cortland Review.
Now that Simic has died at age 84, the moment is apt to reflect on the poetic legacy of a perfectionist who never cut himself any slack and aspired to enlarge readers’ sense of what it is possible to achieve in forms and styles that flourished in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, under the influence of such figures as Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams. From the beginnings of his career in 1959, when the Chicago Review published a couple of his poems, up until his passing, Simic took what the pioneers of short, pared-down verse introduced to the world of letters, and ran with it in exhilarating directions.
When you write long, discursive poems in the manner of Lawrence Ferlinghetti or some of the other beats, the border between verse and prose grows hazy and you need not worry too much about the tonal qualities and scansion of each and every line. You can ramble and rant and take your time getting where you’re going. If there is gaucherie or repetition here and there, or a line that doesn’t quite land, that’s okay, because moments of inspiration elsewhere can pick up the slack.
For his part, Simic worked in a medium where the contrast between the short lines and the whiteness around them on the page would be acute and the reader, by choice or default, would be a harsh judge of every image and turn of phrase. Simic proudly identified as a minimalist and sought out a spare form that is infinitely harder than it looks to those who never try it.
Part of the reason for his success has to do with the rawness and urgency of the subject matter he set down on the page. Searing memory and fierce emotion guided his hand, images chose themselves. As a refugee who escaped a bombed-out Belgrade and made it to Chicago—later claiming that “My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin”—Simic acknowledged that he adopted the voice of a displaced person. The voice we hear in a Simic poem is that of a wanderer through a dark cityscape, a lurker in an alley, a fugitive on a corner in the wee hours of the morning where something dramatic has happened or is about to happen, a dweller on the outskirts of adventure and trauma. The character might be in the literal war zone of Belgrade during the war, or on a block in an American city where psychic tensions exert their own lethal force.
Look for example at “Empire of Dreams,” one of the pieces in Simic’s Selected Early Poems. The narrator tells us that on the opening page of what he calls his dreambook, “It’s always evening / In an occupied country.” A curfew is right about to take effect and no lights are on in any of the houses or in the wrecked storefronts. This might be Belgrade in the lull between bombings, but later lines imply that the setting may be that strange nexus we find in dream states where past and present flow together. Certainly there are elements here that would not be out of place in Chicago or Middle America more generally: “I have gone out to look / For a black dog who answers to my whistle. / I have a kind of Halloween mask / Which I am afraid to put on.”
With a few words, this poem rises to a level of sly ambiguity. The canine might be a metaphor for depression, as it became in Australian poet Les Murray’s 2009 memoir Killing the Black Dog, and the speaker here may be more terrified of what he himself has the potential to turn into, if he should put on that mask, then of any specter or aggressor lurking out there in the nocturnal city.
Another poem in this vein is the brief “Crepuscular,” whose seventeen lines conjure the experience of wandering through city blocks where an employee of the power company has failed to do his job and the streetlights are not working. Simic does not tell us why they went off in the first place. Bombs may have fallen, or it may be a case of urban dysfunction in an American city where corruption and incompetence conspire to reduce urban grids to Hobbsian hellscapes. Where is that worker who was supposed to show up hours ago? “Almost night now / And he’s late, long overdue . . . / Whoever he is, has / Other things on his mind.”
So much of the world’s functioning is up to unseen forces, and the reader feels sorry for the people of the decrepit neighborhood, at least until the final line, where Simic intimates that they may not be angelic. The narrator describes clusters of people standing on corners, waiting for the power to come on, “Dimly outlined / Against the sky / As if by a police artist.”
For all the alienation conveyed in this body of work, isolation is not the enemy of the soul. In other poems, Simic did not try to render a canvas of urban anomie but a rustic setting where the character, if lonely, has moments of peace in which to reflect. A case in point is “Evening Walk,” where the speaker walks along a road over which trees lean on either side as night falls. The mood is different from the darker poems. As he moves up the road, the narrator fancies himself pursuing an evening from another time of life, “Long-ago evening of long dresses, / Pointy shoes, silver cigarette cases. / Happy heart, what heavy steps you take / As you hurry after them in the thickening shadows.”
The speaker is not unlike the protagonist of Ted Hughes’s great “Pike,” who fishes at a pond in the half-conscious expectation that its depths will make an offering to him. Here the narrator does not pursue a monster or a demon, but a moment in time he remembers fondly. Melancholy and happiness are conjoined in the pursuit of an unattainable goal.
Maybe no one ever achieves perfection, but as we grieve the passing of Charles Simic, it is well to reflect that, in the words of Norman Vincent Peale, this poet aimed for the moon to land among the stars.