First Published: The Irish Times, July 23, 2005
‘Son,” the poet Charles Simic’s mother would greet him when he visited her in the Chicago nursing home where she spent the last years of her life, “You still write poetry?” He laughs as he remembers. “And I’d say, ‘Yes, mother’, and she’d shake her head and say, ‘my poor boy . . . ‘ She always thought that I would get into trouble. She thought that I had a big mouth.”
Though grounded in an earlier world of experience, Helen Simic’s anxiety was understandable. The Belgrade into which her son was born in 1938 was on the brink of a war which would ravage both it and its inhabitants; his earliest memory is of a night in 1941, when Nazi forces launched a series of bombings that claimed thousands – some estimate up to 17,000 – lives. Simic himself, on that morning, was a toddler thrown from his cot by the force of a bomb striking outside his home. Walking through the ruined city afterwards, he would not look at the Germans standing on the street corners – his mother forbade it. He would not see the bodies of Serbs hanged on the main square – his mother pulled her coat over his eyes, shielding him from the sight. Saying little and looking less; such were the keys to survival in a dangerous time. For his mother, they would remain crucial even after 1954, when she got herself and her children out of Belgrade, moving first to Paris and eventually following her husband to the new life he had begun in the United States.
But the prospect of getting into trouble caused less worry to the young Simic, despite his mother’s warnings. To him and his friends, the occupied city was a playgound of shattered houses and soldier games, and one in which parents were much too preoccupied to enforce any rules. “They were years of violence, but they were extremely interesting to someone growing up in the city, in the heart of the city,” he explains. “And we loved it. I mean, when I was a kid, we thought it was great.”
More than half a century later, Simic is still immersed in adventure, still playing games, but this time in and with language itself; though neither starkly experimental or narratively obscure, his poetry toys with currents of menace, darkness and fear as easily as it draws life from the moments of good in the world, from the simple objects in which we find hope, or humour, or both at once. “What is beautiful,” he writes in The Altar, from his 2001 collection, Night Picnic, “is found accidentally, and not sought after / What is beautiful is easily lost.” The rare beauty of Simic’s poetic voice was evident even with the publication, in 1967, of his first collection, What the Grass Says, with its loving, intricate knowledge of the concrete elements of a life. In the 15 collections since then, that beauty has grown, if anything, rarer still, enriched by sadness, foreboding, defiance, realisation. Simic’s poems know the world, in both its blackness and its light, its heaviness and its gentle mundanity, and the determined precision of his gaze has won him both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN Award for translation. Another major accolade brought him to Dublin last month; he was this year’s international winner of the $40,000 Griffin Poetry Prize, which was honoured with an evening of readings by Simic and other Griffin poets at the Dublin Writers Festival.
Asked about the difference that a prize like the Griffin can make to a poet’s career, Simic is characteristically deadpan. It makes a change, he says, from being a loser. “I’ve been, previously, in similar situations,” he says. “I’ve been all dressed up in a suit, and been a loser. And one of the hardest things about losing is not losing itself, but that you have to spend the next two hours and days after accepting condolences, from people saying, ‘I’m so sorry you lost’. Or, ‘I was praying for you’. And you say, ‘It’s ok, it’s fine, don’t worry, I’m a big boy’.” He laughs. “Yeah. So I was happy I didn’t have to do that again.”
Simic laughs a lot, lightly, quietly, often self-deprecatingly. His accent is a mealy mixture of New York (where he lived in his 20s), New Hampshire (where he currently teaches) and old Belgrade. He takes some things very seriously, and some things less so, including himself – he doesn’t mind conducting an interview in his hotel room, beside his rumpled bed, because everywhere else is too noisy, or jamming open the hotel window with one of his own books, because the humidity, even this early, is becoming too much.
He doesn’t mind admitting that, although he considers himself to have retained something from his Eastern European background – “humour, cynicism, a tragic view of life mixed with farce, mixed with comedy” – the poets of that tradition have rejected him as a stranger, and he doesn’t fight against the tone of resignation, or maybe even sadness, that slips into his voice as he describes this rejection. “They regard me as a foreigner,” he says, “They don’t think my poetry has anything to do with them. So, you know. There’s nothing there for me. I mean, they translate my work, and they’re happy to have someone in America . . . but during the nationalist days, I read it again and again, ‘he’s a complete foreigner’, said in a very pejorative way. An alien. That was their view.”
Simic looks towards the US now, and has done for many years, he says. As a 20 year- old arriving in New York in the late 1950s, he found himself drawn slowly into the literary scene – the parties after readings where “you would see from a distance the famous names, Lowell, Berryman”, the little magazines, “awfully produced, mimeographed and cheap-looking but extremely exciting” – yet resisted the notion of being part of a school or movement.
Such resistance was not easy; he was faced with the fervent efforts of contemporaries and commentators to pin him down, along with Mark Strand and Charles Wright, as a neo-surrealist, or a deep image poet.
“I suppose they had to call us something,” he says. “But we wanted to keep our independence. I mean, because the generation before us exhausted themselves in polemic, fighting with issues, for us, just being a little bit detached from that, you could see interesting things that you could appropriate, here and there.”
What Simic was least interested in appropriating, at this stage, was the deeply self-referential style of poetry associated with Lowell and Berryman, among others; the poem which tells directly of the life was not the poem he strove to create. And, though they were giants in the literary scene of the time, Lowell and Berryman meant, he says frankly, “nothing” to him. He may have been helped in this reaction by the vehemence of older writers in Chicago, where he spent his teenage years before coming to New York.
”I remember when I was a young fellow in Chicago and someone gave me a copy of Lowell’s Life Studies, and the novelist Nelson Algren, who despised East Coast writers, and just the East Coast, said, ‘what are you reading there?’, and took the book out of my pocket. And he said, ‘Charles, don’t read that shit. You’re a kid off the boat. Read Whitman. Read Carl Sandburg. Don’t read these Boston, these Ivy League phonies . . .’” He laughs at the memory, and then comes upon another. “It was very much a Chicago thing. You know, when I decided to move to New York, my friends were all in a panic. That I would become one of those typical East establishment types, in tweeds, smoking a pipe, drinking scotch and soda . . . I told them, don’t worry.”
Still, for all his independence from the dominant schools, the autobiographical impulse found its way into his work. Not in the naked manner of Life Studies, but subtly, unmistakably. It’s there in poems like Prodigy, where the poet writes of a summer witnessing “men hung from telephone poles”, or, in Against Whatever It Is that’s Encroaching, where a small boy comes home “to a room almost dark” as “the grown-ups raise their glasses to him”, looking as if they might either “cry or sing”, in an echo of that night in Simic’s old childhood when the grown-ups told him that the war was over (and when he complained, in reply, that there would be no more fun).
“You know how it is,” Simic says with another laugh. “If one does live a life, it’s going to intrude at some point. And there was a book, my fourth I think, Charon’s Cosmology, where I just sort of rediscovered my life as a second World War child. Good stories, interesting things would just crop up. You know, a night of drinking and you tell your friends about your early life, and you remember something, and it leads to something else . . .”
But Simic never bound himself rigidly to the memories that resurfaced; that sense of play so endemic to his poetry was there from the start. “I’m not a stickler for truth,” he says. “To me, lying in poetry is much more fun. I’m against lying in life, in principle, in any other activity except poetry. So a poem may start with some autobiographical material, but you know, if, along the way, a more interesting fictional conclusion or turn proposes itself, I’m very happy to leave myself behind. To wave to little Charlie, and then go on and make something up.”
Reality, however, has always been at the core of Simic’s work, even of his most arguably surrealist work. “The world as it exists has always been very important to me,” he says, laughing as if at the notion that anything else could be centrally important to a poet. “I’m all for the imagination, but there’s a part of me, an equal part, that believes in a kind of hard realism. I’m not interested in nonsense, in not communicating. No matter how daring, how seemingly obscure and complicated an image, I will only use it if I can smell in it some meaning lurking, or something happening. That can take the reader someplace.”
The key, he says, is to get back to reality with a fresh perspective. “Because all we have is reality, finally. I mean, the imagination, as imaginative as you can be, it’s not inexhaustible. It tends to be the same old film, played over and over. You need reality to make the imagination do interesting things, to renew itself. Take the reality out of the equation and you simply repeat yourself.”
The reality facing any American poet right now, he agrees, is a harsh one, and not an easy one to confront without losing artistic integrity. “We are living in a kind of reality that is . . . unreal. Reality is actually a great enemy of the present administration and of the official Washington. Nobody wants to hear about reality. And it’s very difficult to describe, that sense of displacement, that sense of being bewildered in a world in which one is living.” Remembering the flood of political poems which came with the Vietnam war, he is reluctant to rush toward the subject in his own work, but it forces its way through; his own horror at the return of “a love of war, an idea that war is noble” is something that he finds difficult to keep out of his writing.
Recently, he has written a poem about the flag-draped coffins of American soldiers returning from Iraq at the dead of night, delivered to their parents houses when nobody can see them, when nobody can photograph the truth. But the truth can become a poem.
“Always in the background of my poems is that sense of the world,” he says. “When I was a kid, when I came to this country and faced the possibilty of being drafted, and then my sons did, and my brother was in Vietnam . . . it just never ends.” Nor, thankfully, does the impulse to write. “This year,” he says, and the realisation transforms his face as he puts it into words, “it will be 50 years since I started writing poetry. It’s just an ongoing obsession, preoccupation in my life. And that’s why I write. Because I cannot imagine myself without this inner life, this mental life, this constant worry. This poetry.”
Bloom’s Hotel, Dublin, Bloomsday 2005.