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Why Charles Simic Still Writes Poetry

By Harriet Staff

Charles Simic still writes poems. That’s good. He also wrote this post on the New York Review of Books blog explaining why he still writes poems. That’s also good.

Here’s a snippet:

I have known in my life a number of young poets with immense talent who gave up poetry even after being told they were geniuses. No one ever made that mistake with me, and yet I kept going. I now regret destroying my early poems, because I no longer remember whom they were modeled after. At the time I wrote them, I was reading mostly fiction and had little knowledge of contemporary poetry and modernist poets. The only extensive exposure I had to poetry was in the year I attended school in Paris before coming to the United States. They not only had us read Lamartine, Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine, but they made us memorize certain poems of theirs and recite them in front of the class. This was such a nightmare for me as a rudimentary speaker of French—and guaranteed fun for my classmates, who cracked up at the way I mispronounced some of the most beautiful and justly famous lines of poetry in French literature—that for years afterwards I couldn’t bring myself to take stock of what I learned in that class. Today, it’s clear to me that my love of poetry comes from those readings and those recitations, which left a deeper impact on me than I realized when I was young.

There’s something else in my past that I only recently realized contributed to my perseverance in writing poems, and that is my love of chess. I was taught the game in wartime Belgrade by a retired professor of astronomy when I was six years old and over the next few years became good enough to beat not just all the kids my age, but many of the grownups in the neighborhood. My first sleepless nights, I recall, were due to the games I lost and replayed in my head. Chess made me obsessive and tenacious. Already then, I could not forget each wrong move, each humiliating defeat. I adored games in which both sides are reduced to a few figures each and in which every single move is of momentous significance. Even today, when my opponent is a computer program (I call it “God”) that outwits me nine out of ten times, I’m not only in awe of its superior intelligence, but find my losses far more interesting to me than my infrequent wins. The kind of poems I write—mostly short and requiring endless tinkering—often recall for me games of chess. They depend for their success on word and image being placed in proper order and their endings must have the inevitability and surprise of an elegantly executed checkmate.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, May 16th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.