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About this poet

Charles Simic was born on May 9, 1938, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where he had a traumatic childhood during World War II. In 1954 he emigrated from Yugoslavia with his mother and brother to join his father in the United States. They lived in and around Chicago until 1958.

His first poems were published in 1959, when he was twenty-one. In 1961 he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and in 1966 he earned his Bachelor's degree from New York University while working at night to cover the costs of tuition.

His first full-length collection of poems, What the Grass Says, was published the following year. Since then he has published more than sixty books in the U.S. and abroad, twenty titles of his own poetry among them, including New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012 (Harcourt, 2013); Master of Disguises (2010); That Little Something (2008); My Noiseless Entourage (2005); Selected Poems: 1963-2003 (Faber and Faber, 2004), for which he received the 2005 International Griffin Poetry Prize; The Voice at 3:00 AM: Selected Late and New Poems (2003); Night Picnic (2001); Jackstraws (1999), which was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times; and The Book of Gods and Devils (1990).

His other books of poetry include Walking the Black Cat (1996), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; A Wedding in Hell (1994); Hotel Insomnia (1992); The World Doesn't End: Prose Poems (1989), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990; Selected Poems: 1963-1983 (1990); and Unending Blues (1986).

In his essay "Poetry and Experience," Simic wrote: "At least since Emerson and Whitman, there's a cult of experience in American poetry. Our poets, when one comes right down to it, are always saying: This is what happened to me. This is what I saw and felt. Truth, they never get tired of reiterating, is not something that already exists in the world, but something that needs to be rediscovered almost daily."

Simic has also published numerous translations of French, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Slovenian poetry, and is the author of several books of essays, including Orphan Factory. He has edited several anthologies, including an edition of The Best American Poetry in 1992.

About his work, a reviewer for the Harvard Review said, "There are few poets writing in America today who share his lavish appetite for the bizarre, his inexhaustible repertoire of indelible characters and gestures ... Simic is perhaps our most disquieting muse."

Simic was appointed the fifteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in 2007. About the appointment, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, "The range of Charles Simic's imagination is evident in his stunning and unusual imagery. He handles language with the skill of a master craftsman, yet his poems are easily accessible, often meditative and surprising. He has given us a rich body of highly organized poetry with shades of darkness and flashes of ironic humor."

"I am especially touched and honored to be selected because I am an immigrant boy who didn't speak English until I was 15," responded Simic after being named Poet Laureate.

Simic was chosen to receive the Academy Fellowship in 1998, and elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2000. He has received numerous awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995.

Most recently, he was the recipient of the 2011 Frost Medal, presented annually for "lifetime achievement in poetry." In 2007, he received the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. Simic is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, where he has taught since 1973.


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From the Image Archive

 

The Initiate

Charles Simic, 1938
St. John of the Cross wore dark glasses
As he passed me on the street.
St. Theresa of Avila, beautiful and grave,
Turned her back on me.

"Soulmate," they hissed. "It's high time."

I was a blind child, a wind-up toy . . .
I was one of death's juggling red balls
On a certain street corner
Where they peddle things out of suitcases.

The city like a huge cinema
With lights dimmed.
The performance already started.

So many blurred faces in a complicated plot.

The great secret which kept eluding me: knowing who I am . . .

The Redeemer and the Virgin,
Their eyes wide open in the empty church
Where the killer came to hide himself . . .

The new snow on the sidewalk bore footprints
That could have been made by bare feet.
Some unknown penitent guiding me.
In truth, I didn't know where I was going.
My feet were frozen,
My stomach growled.

Four young hoods blocking my way.
Three deadpan, one smiling crazily.

I let them have my black raincoat.

Thinking constantly of the Divine Love 
     and the Absolute had disfigured me.
People mistook me for someone else.
I heard voices after me calling out unknown names.
"I'm searching for someone to sell my soul to,"
The drunk who followed me whispered,
While appraising me from head to foot.

At the address I had been given.
The building had large X's over its windows.
I knocked but no one came to open.
By and by a black girl joined me on the steps.
She banged at the door till her fist hurt.

Her name was Alma, a propitious sign.
She knew someone who solved life's riddles
In a voice of an ancient Sumerian queen.
We had a long talk about that
While shivering and stamping our wet feet.

It was necessary to stay calm, I explained,
Even with the earth trembling,
And to continue to watch oneself
As if one were a complete stranger.

Once in Chicago, for instance,
I caught sight of a man in a shaving mirror
Who had my naked shoulders and face,
But whose eyes terrified me!
Two hard staring, all-knowing eyes!

After we parted, the night, the cold, and the endless walking
Brought on a kind of ecstasy.
I went as if pursued, trying to warm myself.

There was the East River; there was the Hudson.
Their waters shone like oil in sanctuary lamps.

Something supreme was occurring
For which there will never be any words.

The sky was full of racing clouds and tall buildings,
Whirling and whirling silently.

In that whole city you could hear a pin drop.
Believe me.
I thought I heard a pin drop and I went looking for it.

From The Book of Gods and Devils, published by Harcourt Brace & Company, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Charles Simic. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

From The Book of Gods and Devils, published by Harcourt Brace & Company, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Charles Simic. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Charles Simic

Charles Simic

Charles Simic was born on May 9, 1938, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where

by this poet

poem
If you didn't see the six-legged dog,
It doesn't matter.
We did, and he mostly lay in the corner.
As for the extra legs,

One got used to them quickly
And thought of other things.
Like, what a cold, dark night
To be out at the fair.

Then the keeper threw a stick
And the dog went after it
On four legs, the other
poem
Shoes, secret face of my inner life:
Two gaping toothless mouths,
Two partly decomposed animal skins
Smelling of mice-nests.

My brother and sister who died at birth
Continuing their existence in you,
Guiding my life
Toward their incomprehensible innocence.

What use are books to me
When in you it is possible to
poem
Of the light in my room:
Its mood swings,
Dark-morning glooms,
Summer ecstasies.

Spider on the wall,
Lamp burning late,
Shoes left by the bed,
I'm your humble scribe.

Dust balls, simple souls
Conferring in the corner.
The pearl earring she lost,
Still to be found.

Silence of falling snow,
Night vanishing