Better Know a Poet Laureate: Charles Simic
Poetry does not have to be difficult.
Many of us seem to imagine poems as odd word puzzles demanding to be solved while the wick of a cartoon bomb burns, threatening to explode our poor selves into smithereens. Struggling with dictionary and encyclopedia to decode unfamiliar terminology or references, we finally give up, trading this tough task for an enticing novel or the DVD set of a recent addicting TV show.
In reality, while there are poems which prod us to investigate and learn in order to become enriched by finer details, poetry can also be approached in the same receptive mentality we approach a photograph or an unheard piece of music. Our experience of a work of art can be enhanced by information about its place in history or the intent behind a technique used, but great art can move us without requiring any expertise.
Charles Simic, U.S. Poet Laureate from 2007 through 2008, shows throughout his work how poetry can immediately immerse us, like an old photograph, in the sense of another place, and how a poem can also lead us up and down flights of stairs like the melody of a song. Simic's poems are freshly clear, freeing us from the dull work of scrubbing their windows clean of unknowns blocking our view. We can see the garden on the other side clearly, and even step out through the window to get a closer look at each row of tomatoes, the empty birdfeeder, and the underbellies of the two fir trees stepping over the backyard privacy fence.
With Fork, from Simic's first collection Dismantling the Silence, we are invited to picture this instrument of our everyday eating experience in a sinister light.
This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird's foot
Worn around the cannibal's neck.
As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless and blind.
In Great Infirmities, from Simic's 1980 collection Classic Ballroom Dances, a bizarre alternate reality is shown with all its implications in concrete imagery in such a way the makes the unreal seem eerily plausible.
Everyone has only one leg.
So difficult to get around,
So difficult to climb the stairs
Without a cane or a crutch to our name.
And only one arm. Impossible contortions
Just to embrace the one you love,
To cut the bread on the table,
To put a coat on in a hurry.
I should mention that we are almost blind,
and a little deaf in both ears.
Perilous to be on the street
Among the congregations of the aflicted.
With only a few steps commited to memory,
Meekly we let ourselves be diverted
In the endless twilight --
Blind seeing-eye dogs on our leashes.
An immense stillness everywhere
With the trees always bare,
The raindrops coming down only halfway,
Coming so close and giving up.
For more information on Charles Simic's life and work, check out the links below to books in our catalog as well as web sites with bios, more poems, and even sound recordings of a few poems.
Charles Simic, Great Infirmities from Classic Ballroom Dances, Copyright © 1980 by Charles Simic; originally published by George Braziller
Charles Simic, Fork from Dismantling The Silence, Copyright © 1971 by Charles Simic; originally published by George Braziller