Charles Simic, acclaimed and singular poet, dead at 84
NEW YORK (AP) — Charles Simic, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who awed critics and readers with his singular art of lyricism and economy, tragic insight and disruptive humor, has died at age 84.
The death of Simic, the country’s poet laureate from 2007-2008, was confirmed Monday by executive editor Dan Halpern at Alfred A. Knopf. He did not immediately provide additional details.
Author of dozens of books, Simic was ranked by many as among the greatest and most original poets of his time, one who didn’t write in English until well into his 20s. His bleak, but comic perspective was shaped in part by his years growing up in wartime Yugoslavia, leading him to observe that “The world is old, it was always old.” His poems were usually short and pointed, with surprising and sometimes jarring shifts in mood and imagery, as if to mirror the cruelty and randomness he had learned early on.
In “Two Dogs,” Simic writes of how one dog in “some Southern town” and another in the New Hampshire woods reminded him of a “little white dog” who became “entangled” in the feet of marching German soldiers. “Reading History” is a sketch of the “vast, dark and impenetrable” skies for those “led to their death.” In “Help Wanted,” life is a cosmic joke, and the narrator a willing dupe:
They asked for a knife
I come running
They need a lamb
I introduce myself as the lamb
But Simic also loved wordplay (“The insomniac’s brain is a choo-choo train”), catcalls (“America, I shouted at the radio/Even at 2 a.m. you are a loony bin!”) and the interplay of great thoughts and everyday follies: “What was that fragment of Heraclitus/You were trying to remember/As you stepped on the butcher’s cat?” he wrote in “The Friends of Heraclitus.” In “Transport,” sex becomes a near-literal feast of the senses:
In the frying pan
On the stove
I found my love
And me naked
Fell on our heads
And made us cry
It’s like a parade,
I told her, confetti
When some guy
Reaches the moon
His notable books included “The World Doesn’t End,” winner of the Pulitzer in 1990; “Walking the Black Cat,” a National Book Award finalist in 1996; “Unending Blues” and such recent collections as “The Lunatic” and “Scribbled in the Dark.” In 2005, he received the Griffin Poetry Prize and was praised by judges as “a magician, a conjuror,” master of “a disarming, deadpan precision, which should never be mistaken for simplicity.” He was fluent in several languages and translated the works of other poets from French, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Slovenian.
His 2022 collection “No Land in Sight” presented a dark vision of contemporary life, such as the poem “Come Spring” and its warning: “Don’t let birdie in the tree/Fool you with its pretty song/The wicked are back from hell.”
In 1964, Simic married fashion designer Helene Dubin, with whom he had two children. He became an American citizen in 1971 and two years later joined the faculty of the University of New Hampshire, where he remained for decades.
Born Dusan Simic in Belgrade in 1938, the year before World War II began, he would describe his youth as “a small, nonspeaking part/In a bloody epic.” His father fled to Italy in 1942 and was apart from the family for years. Home was so oppressive that Simic came to see the war as a needed escape.
“The war ended the day before May 9, 1945, which happened to be my birthday,” he told the Paris Review in 2005. “I was playing in the street. I went up to the apartment to get a drink of water where my mother and our neighbors were listening to the radio. They said, ‘War is over,’ and apparently I looked at them puzzled and said, ‘Now there won’t be any more fun!’ In wartime, there’s no parental supervision; the grown-ups are so busy with their lives, the kids can run free.”
Simic would refer to Hitler and Stalin as his “travel agents.” Nazi rule gave way to Soviet-backed oppression and Simic emigrated to France with his mother and brother in the mid-1950s, then soon to the U.S. His family settled in Chicago, where his high school was once attended by Ernest Hemingway, and he became interested in poetry — for the art and for the girls. His parents unable to pay for college, he spent a decade working at jobs ranging from a payroll clerk to house painter while taking night classes at the University of Chicago and eventually New York University, from which he graduated in 1966 with a degree in Russian studies.
His first book, “What the Grass Says,” came out in 1967. He followed with “Somewhere Among Us a Stone is Taking Notes” and “Dismantling the Silence,” and was soon averaging a book a year. A New York Times review from 1978 would note his gift for conveying “a complex of perceptions and feelings” in just a few lines.
“Of all the things ever said about poetry, the axiom that less is more has made the biggest and the most lasting impression on me,” Simic told Granta in 2013. “I have written many short poems in my life, except ‘written’ is not the right word to describe how they came into existence. Since it’s not possible to sit down and write an eight-line poem that’ll be vast for its size, these poems are assembled over a long period of time from words and images floating in my head.”
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